By Barry Rubin
Yes, friends, it’s once again time for that exciting game of Spin the Polls by the Pew Foundation. Here are the rules:
Rule 1: Pew does a good job on the poll itself.
Rule 3: The Western media and government misread the poll, often misinterpreting the results into the exact opposite of what they actually mean. They then adopt the wrong policies.
Rule 4: If correctly interpreted the polls are a gold mine that can help us comprehend the present and predict the future.
Some years ago, for example, I analyzed a Pew poll that we were told proved moderation because it showed that people in Arab and Muslim-majority countries had a low opinion of al-Qaida. In fact, as I wrote the poll showed a shockingly high level of support for revolutionary Islamism, especially in Egypt and Jordan.
Once again we have the misleading spin beginning with the headline: “Egyptians Remain Optimistic, Embrace Democracy and Religion in Political Life.”
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If I were writing the headline it would be: “Egyptians Want Radical Islamist State More Than Anything Else.”
To be fair to Pew, the lead of their analysis is something very significant that couldn’t have been imagined before now: “Opinions of the U.S. and President Obama continue to be overwhelmingly unfavorable.” This is somehow spun, however, to imply that there is no real crisis and that U.S. policy need not be reexamined or changed.
After all, the Obama Administration’s role in helping to overthrow not just President Husni Mubarak (a reasonable action) but the entire regime brought no gain for the United States whatsoever. Instead it has been helping bring to power an anti-American regime likely to destabilize the region and bring war.
The poll concludes that Egyptians still want the same type of relationship with the United States. But what does this mean other than continuing to take U.S. aid money? Using America as a scapegoat—as Middle Eastern dictatorships have done now for more than a half-century—it won’t be long before hate-America rallies, demagogic anti-American speeches, a lack of cooperation on issues, and violence-inciting broadcasts or articles become routine.
You won’t be surprised to hear that two-thirds of Egyptians want to throw out the peace treaty with Israel. The U.S. Congress has properly determined that this would lead to an end of U.S. aid. So what will the next Egyptian government do? Simple, don’t throw out the treaty formally but just break it in every way possible.
What’s most critical is how Egyptians think of their own country. Here’s a very revealing apparent contradiction. Read carefully.
The Pew poll’s headline says that Egyptians are optimistic but that they also believe the economic situation is not good. Half of them claim things have gotten worse since Mubarak fell. Why then do even more Egyptians believe the country is headed in the right direction?
The answer is that they are happy with the political direction—toward radical Islamism—but do not think it will improve their material lives. They make a distinction between material benefit and spiritual-ideological preference. Such a choice is never understood in the West, especially by those who argue that everyone wants the same things in life, so an Islamist regime must deliver prosperity or fall, and consequently that radicals must moderate in order to fill their people’s stomachs.
Remember what Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, architect of Iran’s revolution, said back in 1979: People in the West don’t understand that we didn’t make this revolution to lower the price of watermelons.
No, the substitute for such material success is repression plus finding the right scapegoat and subsidizing certain key constituencies (notably the military), which brings us back to the need to build antagonism against the United States, Israel, and the West in order to distract from the economic mess, doesn’t it?
Another apparent contradiction is equally revealing. When asked whether they preferred to model Egypt on Saudi Arabia or Turkey regarding religion’s role in government, thy chose Saudi Arabia by a 61 to 17 percent margin. Note that Western pundits and experts keep insisting that there is some kind of Turkish model of moderate Islamism. Aside from the fact that Turks aren’t Arabs, this is a sign of the base of support for a fully sharia state. Remember that as Sunni Muslims, Egyptians are not going to cite Iran as their model. And when they are talking about Saudi Arabia they are not indicating its basic alliance with the United States but its extreme form of Islamic rule in domestic life.
When asked if Egypt’s laws should strictly adhere to the Quran, 60 percent said yes while another 32 percent said it should follow the values and principles of Islam more generally. Let’s say that this 60 percent (see the Saudi model, above) is the firm base for Islamist rule. This is less than the 75 percent the Islamists received in the parliamentary elections, suggesting that 15 percent of these voters are not so totally for an Islamist society.
That 32 percent are not “moderate Muslims” or “secularist Muslims” but they are non-Islamist Muslims. A few years ago there were a lot more of them but their ranks are steadily eroded by the advance of revolutionary Islamism. Since there is no strong alternative theological or political leadership in that direction, this is unlikely to be strong enough to block an Islamist transformation. And who is left as the genuine, secular or for a minimally religious state? The Christians, that’s about all.
Pew makes much of supposed moderation by pointing out that two-thirds of those who endorsed the Saudi model also said democracy is their preferred form of government; 64 percent want a free press; 61 percent want free speech.
But what does this really mean in the context of Egypt? Of course they support “democracy” since the alternative they have in mind is the hated Mubarak dictatorship. And what does democracy mean to them? A landslide victory for the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists! Thus, when they think about, “This is what democracy looks like,” that means eternal Islamist victories.
As for a free press and free speech, that means diversity, though we should remember that newspaper reading in Egypt is tiny compared to the West. Yet what would happen if someone used this free press or free speech for something deemed critical of Islam?
Already we are seeing people brought to court for saying things the Islamists don’t like. Yet the cases are heard by Mubarak-appointed judges. What will happen when the Islamists appoint the judges?
The hypnotized observers in the West keep chanting that the Brotherhood has renounced violence and would never ever use force and intimidation. If you want to know what Egypt has in store consider the following:
In 1992–under Mubarak’s regime–Farag Fouda, a fearless secularist, debated a Muslim Brotherhood leader at the Cairo Book Fair. Five months later, an Islamist assassinated Fouda. At the trial, a Muslim Brotherhood leader testified as a defense witness that the killing was the proper punishment for an apostate, at which point the defendant shouted, “Now I will die with a clear conscience.”
That was a Mubarak court and the killer was found guilty. What will happen in an Islamist regime’s court?
Many Egyptians will die, as will U.S. interests. Will the Western apologists and enablers have a clear conscience?
PS: The Washington Post covered very briefly the debate between two presidential candidates, the radical nationalist secularist, Amr Moussa, and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. The Post article informs us that Aboul Fotouh is “considered a moderate Islamist.” By whom? In the debate, Aboul Fotouh said he would implement Sharia with supposed moderation. His formula, which the report missed, is that Sharia might not be imposed 100 percent. So much for moderation.
The Post also reported that he called Israel the enemy of Egypt. But the article missed Aboul Fotouh’s signal about Israel, which he called “ built on occupation.” To any Egyptian that says: Israel is an illegitimate entity that has no right to exist. Abu Moussa personally has shown he hates Israel but also demonstrates why he would make a president more likely to keep Egypt out of war and disaster:
“We have lots of disagreements. Most of our people consider it an enemy, but the responsibility of the president is to deal with such things responsibly and not run after hot-headed slogans.”
In broader terms, this is the choice Egypt will have to make–radical ideology and hot-headed slogans or pragmatism. The electorate’s views; size of Egypt’s problems; lack of resources that would allow constructive policies that would improve people’s lives materially; parliament; drafters of the new Constitution, violent Salafists (who support Aboul Fotouh), and probably the president will all be in the former camp.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.