Stepping off the plane and walking through the airport on my way to a conference, “The U.S. in a Changing Middle East,” my eye caught the front cover of The Atlantic. What attracted my attention was not the title of its lead article “Danger: Falling Tyrants,” but rather, the picture of a fully veiled woman with only her eyes showing with the header, “Is This the Face of Arab Democracy?”
As we assess political challenges facing new governments in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere in the Middle East, we continue to cling to a failed narrative. For decades, authoritarian rulers in the Arab world and Western governments and political commentators justified support for repressive regimes maintaining that the alternative was chaos and an Islamist takeover, or that Arab culture and Islam were incompatible with democracy. Old habits die hard.
The Arab uprisings confirm what numerous opinion polls previously reported. While religion remains important, majorities across predominantly Muslim societies prefer democracy to theocracy. Gallup’s newly released report “Egypt FromTahrir to Transition” offers further insights into Egyptian attitudes in this crucial time of transformation. Egyptians have virtually no interest (1%) in modeling their political system on Iran’s Islamic Republic. Most Egyptians (69%) think religious leaders should be limited to an advisory role to government authorities. Moreover, despite being viewed favorably by the majority of Egyptians, the Muslim Brotherhood has no more than 15% of public support. Not only do many overestimate popular support for Islamists, but most also assume this preference for the decades-old organization is synonymous with anti-Americanism. The evidence says otherwise. According to the Gallup survey, Muslim Brotherhood supporters are slightly more likely (26%) than the general public (18%) to approve of the leadership of the U.S.
The data also counter misconceptions of Muslim predispositions to violence: The Gallup report found that Egyptians are the most likely public in the world to say the targeting and killing of civilians is never justified (97%). Not only do Egyptians reject terrorism as a tactic on moral grounds, but most (79%) also believe that ‘peaceful means alone’ are effective for correcting injustice.
Fear of a hostile Islamist takeover risks a self-destructive decision to encourage a specific outcome in Arab elections. The possible consequences of any attempted political engineering are what we should truly dread — contested elections, chaos, violence, and a surge in anti-Americanism. Many Egyptians remain concerned about possible U.S. interference in their political affairs. According to Gallup, about two-thirds of Egyptians think the U.S. will try to interfere in Egypt’s political future as opposed to letting the people of the country decide. Additionally, a similar number disagree that the U.S. is serious about encouraging democratic systems of government in their region. To build trust and strengthen our relationship with newly empowered Arab societies, we must continue to stand for democratic principles, not political parties or individuals.
Like all people, Egyptians want to forge their political future independently — especially those who most admire America’s democratic principles. Eighty-eight percent of Egyptians who see the U.S. as a political model for their country oppose U.S. aid to political groups in their country, more than those who hold this view among the general public (75%). Perhaps as a result, 52% of Egyptians overall oppose accepting U.S. economic aid, as do 43% of those who believe Egypt should look to the U.S. model of democracy.
The sight of so many protestors across the Arab world calling for democratic reforms highlights our shared values. As we build bridges to these newly empowered publics, we must move beyond a now-discredited narrative and set of false assumptions. We must support but stand back as Arabs exercise the very freedoms we hold dear.