Commentary: There are reasons to worry about Egypt's future

The Miami HeraldFebruary 21, 2011 

Now that the euphoria has started to die down, it’s time for a cold look at Egypt after its people’s victory over dictatorship. President Hosni Mubarak has left power, and the ruling military council promises elections in about six months. That is not a lot of time to change many minds. As a result, there is a good chance that the new Egypt will not resemble what advocates of democracy – in Egypt and abroad – had envisioned for the country’s future.

For starters, a government that truly reflects the people’s views, judging by opinion surveys, would not be a great friend of America. This probably comes as a shocking realization to supporters of Egyptian freedom, who cheered from their U.S. homes for the Tahrir Square demonstrators.

A 2010 poll by Zogby showed that 92 percent of Egyptians consider the United States the greatest threat to the country. Israel came second at 90 percent. Egyptians disapproved of American policies in the Middle East, especially its strong support for Israel. But this survey showed something one doesn’t often see: dislike for the American people. It’s almost cliché, claiming to like the people but not the government or its policies. But this time, a majority of Egyptians told pollsters that they have a negative opinion of the American people, including the president.

True, that was the before President Barack Obama ever-so-gently helped nudge Mubarak from power. But the nudging or, more likely the gentleness, did not win Obama many points. A Gallup poll showed two-thirds of Americans thought the president did a masterful job to manage the crisis. But that view was not shared on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria. There, only 17 percent approved of how Obama’s handling, according to a poll commissioned by the Middle East Institute.

Other than the negative reaction to the president, that poll actually brought a ream of highly encouraging results: Only 15 percent of respondents said they approve of the Muslim Brotherhood and only one percent said they would support a Brotherhood candidate for president. The negative attitudes towards militant Islamic regimes extended beyond Egypt. Only 17 percent said they approve of the Hamas government in Gaza and just 19 percent had a positive view of the Iranian regime. Regarding peace with Israel, 27 percent said they would like the peace treaty scrapped and 37 percent said it should remain. The rest didn’t know or refused to answer.

The MEI poll offers glimmers of hope. But there is a serious problem with it: It was taken only in Cairo and Alexandria. It is not representative of the whole country. It was also conducted by telephone, which means it probably undercounted the views of the very poor. Some 40 percent of Egyptians live on just $2 a day.

A better poll was taken last year by Pew Global, and the results should cause a collective gasp among those who want individual freedoms and true democracy for Egypt and the entire Middle East.

The nationwide survey showed 84 percent of Egyptian Muslims favor the death penalty for people who choose to leave Islam. The results were similar in other countries in the region. That view is plainly incompatible with the most basic principles of liberal democracy, such as freedom of thought, freedom of religion, and freedom of expression.

Egyptians by large numbers also support stoning adulterers and cutting the hands of thieves.

On foreign policy, a government that faithfully reflects the views of its people would move away from some of America’s most important priorities. Last year’s Zogby poll showed 86 percent of Egyptians say Iran has a right to pursue its nuclear program. That, even though the majority said they believe the program aims to produce nuclear weapons. In fact, 79 percent said it would be good if Iran acquired nuclear arms.

These are chilling responses. And they foreshadow a potentially disastrous situation for Washington in the Middle East.

If there is good news, it is that the most energized part of the population is the one that built the revolution. Its young members are also the most passionate advocates of individual rights and moderation. Many of them speak English, have studied in the United States and some, including the most prominent leader, work for American companies.

The public is well-disposed to the people who made the new exhilarating freedom possible. These are the people who now have six months to persuade a majority of Egyptians that their idea of democracy, the one shared by the West, is the one to follow. These are the people who need discrete but effective American support.

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