Arabs Unimpressed by Bush Democracy Drive

WASHINGTON – Despite a modest decline in hostility toward the United States, opinion in the Arab world appears to have hardened over the past year, according to the latest in an annual series of surveys of six Arab countries released here Wednesday by the Arab American Institute (AAI).

That hardening appears due primarily to continued Arab opposition to the war in Iraq and to perceptions of U.S. treatment of Arabs and Muslims – the two most important factors in shaping Arab views of the U.S., according to the survey, which was carried out by the Zogby International polling firm in the latter half of October.

By contrast, President George W. Bush’s efforts to persuade the Arab world that Washington promotes democratic reform in their countries has made hardly a dent in the views of the vast majority of Arabs, with the exception of Christians in Lebanon, according to the poll’s designer, AAI president, James Zogby.

Besides Lebanon, the survey was carried out in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

"In Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the two countries where the U.S. has focused its democracy message, the effort appeared to backfire," according to Zogby. "Of the 4 percent in Egypt and 9 percent in Saudi Arabia who said that ‘President Bush’s promotion of democracy and reform’ was the most important factor determining their attitudes toward the U.S., over 80 percent said this effort worsened their view of the U.S."

The survey also found growing pessimism, particularly in Egypt and Jordan, about the "likelihood of peace" in the region compared to 2002, the first year that Zogby International and AAI surveyed public opinion in all six countries.

The latest poll, based on a total of 3,900 interviews of randomly selected households in neighborhoods of various income levels in large towns and cities in the six countries, was carried out in conjunction with a second survey designed by the University of Maryland’s (UMD) Peace and Development Studies program.

While the UMD survey, whose results were released here last week, focused primarily on the foreign policy attitudes of respondents, the AAI poll posed a somewhat broader range of questions designed to probe how Arabs felt about their personal lives and domestic politics.

It found that the most important concerns of the vast majority of Arabs are those that are closest to home, including family, the quality of work, marriage, and religion, although religion has fallen substantially in a list of nine "concerns," compared to 2002, particularly in Jordan and Egypt.

Asked about the importance they accorded to issues facing their own country, most Arabs expressed greatest concern about employment opportunities, health care, corruption and nepotism, and the educational system, in that order.

By contrast, "combating extremism and terrorism," "advancing democracy," "lack of political debate," and "protecting personal and civil rights" – all issues that the Bush administration has tried to make priorities – were given a lower priority.

"Resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict" which, in the previous AAI survey conducted in the spring of 2004, was the second-ranking concern of Arab respondents, fell to seventh place this year, with the biggest declines recorded in Lebanon and the UAE.

Despite a deepening pessimism about the prospects for peace in the region, the latest AAI poll showed much greater optimism and satisfaction among its respondents, particularly in Saudi Arabia, compared to four years ago. The only exception was in Egypt, where confidence that respondents and their children will be "better off" in the future dropped significantly compared to four years ago.

The survey also showed that significant majorities of Arabs in all six countries accept women in the workplace, particularly if the reason is to provide financial support for their families. Smaller majorities also supported the idea of women working for other reasons, including "to find a fulfilling career" or "because she wants to work."

There was a significant gender gap in the answers, however, with women respondents significantly more likely to support their working than men, particularly in Egypt, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia.

National identity has become significantly more important to most Arabs than it was in 2002, according the survey. Asked to choose how they would define themselves to Westerners, majorities in Egypt and Lebanon, and pluralities in Jordan, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia, opted for "country" over family, region, religion, and "being Arab." In 2002, the latter two categories dominated the choices.

As to attitudes towards foreign countries, the survey found a slight improvement in Arab perceptions of the United States compared to 2004, when post-Iraq anti-U.S. feelings throughout the Arab world were at their height.

Two out of every three respondents in Jordan, Lebanon, and Morocco said their overall opinion of the U.S. was unfavorable. In the UAE, the ratio was three out of every four, while in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, 85 percent and 89 percent of respondents, respectively, expressed negative views.

Despite the rebound in Arab views of the U.S. compared to 2004, majorities ranging from 58 percent (UAE) to 84 percent (Egypt) of respondents said their attitude toward the U.S. had worsened over the past year.

The only country in which a significant percentage (21 percent) said their views of the U.S. had improved was Lebanon, where Washington played a key role in pressing for Syria’s withdrawal after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. But even there, nearly 80 percent said their opinion of the U.S. had either worsened (49 percent) or remained the same (27 percent).

Views of China were far more favorable, particularly in Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, where majorities expressed positive views of Beijing. India was also viewed significantly more favorably than the United States. Even Russia received more favorable ratings, except in Morocco and the UAE.

Asked what were the most important factors in determining their attitudes towards the U.S., the most common answer given by respondents in every country except UAE was the war in Iraq, followed by "American treatment of Arabs and Muslims."

The U.S. role in the Arab-Israeli conflict came in a fairly distant third, although one out of every five Lebanese listed it as the most important factor for them; while "President Bush’s promotion of democracy and reform" was cited by less than one in 10 respondents in every country except Lebanon.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.