Everyone is trying to figure out what the new Egypt will look like, with some polls painting a nightmare scenario and another one causing cheers. The dizzying contradictions in the polls capture the complexities of Egyptian opinion and can guide a strategy to limit the Muslim Brotherhood’s inevitably large gains.
First, the very, very bad news. The Egyptian people overwhelmingly support the introduction of elements of Sharia into their government. A Pew poll from 2010 registered 84% support for executing those that leave Islam, 82% support for stoning adulterers, and 77% support for whippings and cutting the hands off of those guilty of theft. A significant minority of 22 percent say that a non-democratic form of governance is sometimes the best option and only 36 percent feel a non-Muslim should be allowed to run for president. A poll by Zogby found that 65 percent felt the “clergy must play a greater role in our system.”
The foreign policy of the new Egypt will undoubtedly move in a direction more hostile to the West. Zogby found last July that America has an 85% disapproval rating and 52 percent have a negative opinion of the American people. The U.S. and Israel are viewed universally as the biggest threats. Nearly 80 percent feel it would be a good thing if Iran acquired nuclear weapons and 56 percent believe it is trying to do just that.
A World Public Opinion poll from 2009 found that 64 percent of Egyptians have a positive view of the Muslim Brotherhood and 69 percent believe it is a democratic organization. Only 22 percent feel it is an extremist group that is not genuinely democratic. This poll means that the Brotherhood has a very good chance of winning an outright majority in a parliamentary election if it forms a bloc with Mohammed ElBaradei and other parties.
Nonetheless, here are some poll results that could lift you up a bit. The most recent poll, carried out by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy from February 5-8, had very encouraging results. Before jumping for joy, however, bear in mind that it only polled Egyptians in Cairo and Alexandria, two of the wealthier areas with the most Western influence. The Brotherhood gets the bulk of its strength from the poorer population that’s less affected by globalization and the West. Taken together, Cairo and Alexandria account only for some 12 million of Egypt’s 80 million souls.
That being said, this shows the major cities could form a base from which to challenge the Brotherhood. Only 15 percent in these two cities approve of the Muslim Brotherhood and only one percent would vote for a Brotherhood candidate for president. Only four percent want ElBaradei, the Brotherhood’s mask, to become president. To put this in perspective, former President Mubarak and Vice President Suleiman each scored 18 percent. The secretary-general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, led with 29 percent.
In these two cities, 37 percent want to preserve the peace treaty with Israel versus 22 percent who want to revoke it. When respondents were asked what they wanted Egypt to be like in 5 to 10 years, only 12 percent said they wanted Sharia fully implemented. Being hailed as the first Arab democracy is the vision of 22 percent, and the foremost concern of 17 percent is being known as a center of modernization and tourism. A little over one-fourth care most about Egypt being respected and feared, showing a strong nationalist sentiment.
When asked about the causes of the uprising, only four percent said it happened because the government was not Islamic enough and seven percent said it’s because Mubarak was too close to the U.S. and Israel. In terms of foreign policy, 19 percent want Egypt to be a full-fledged member of a pro-American bloc; 18 percent want to revoke the peace treaty with Israel and confront the Jewish state; 16 percent want distance from the U.S. and an independent course; and 15 percent want an alliance with Iran and Syria against “imperialism” and “colonialism.”
The polls show that a significant amount of Egyptians do not like specific terrorist groups. In the Washington Institute for Near East Policy poll, only 17% of those in Cairo and Alexandria approve or somewhat approve of the Hamas regime in Gaza. This contradicts a nationwide poll showing Hamas with a 49% approval rating with 48% opposing it. It is frightening that al-Qaeda is supported by one-fifth, but 72% oppose the terrorist organization. As for Hezbollah, 30% approve of the group and 66% do not. A huge majority of 80 percent feel suicide bombings are never or rarely justified and 70 percent say they are concerned about Islamic extremism in the world. A little bit over 60 percent are worried about Islamic extremism in their own country.
So what do we make of this statistical hodgepodge?
The Egyptian people want major elements of Sharia law introduced but they want to elect who carries it out. They do not want a theocracy where they have no say. Egypt’s foreign policy will go in a direction more hostile to the West but a nationalist streak means they want independence, though there are strong pro-Western and pro-Islamist blocs. There is a huge desire for modernization, but they do not want to compromise their Islamic identity. And the polls indicate that the strongest rival to the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohammed ElBaradei would be a coalition led by Arab League Secretary Amr Moussa that includes secular nationalists.
These stats also reveal a possible strategy by the Brotherhood’s domestic opponents and the West. The key is to dispel the notion that the Brotherhood is a democratic group as nearly 70 percent believe, particularly by pointing to its own doctrine and tying it to Hamas and Iran. Its commitment to elections and political freedoms must be brought into question. ElBaradei’s affection for Iran and allegations that his campaign received Iranian financing must also become a part of this narrative.
Their opponents need to also make the case that the Brotherhood’s primary concern is Sharia and that the group is not qualified to manage the economy. It must be stated that a radical agenda will inhibit foreign investment, tourism, and economic improvements. A Western threat to cut off all aid if the peace treaty with Israel is abrogated can underscore these points. These lines of attack would play upon the Egyptians’ nationalism, fear of Islamic extremism, longing for democracy, and desire for modernization.
It is also critical that broad freedoms are immediately granted to allow the Brotherhood’s domestic rivals to play catch up to its decades-long head start in organizing, offer alternative ideas, and, most importantly, put it on the defensive. The West can provide aid in preparing for a democratic transition and elections as it does in other countries and focus these efforts on making the entire country as competitive as possible for the contesting parties.
It is foolish to think Egypt will become the Arab equivalent of Israel towards the West, but it doesn’t have to become the next Gaza Strip or Lebanon either.