DEAD SEA, Jordan — While Americans are deeply disillusioned with their government and pessimistic about their future, the long-suffering Egyptians see a brighter future for themselves.
Reliable opinion polls, and good news, are relatively rare in the Arab world, but a Gallup Poll presented at the World Economic Forum Special Meeting on the Arab World offers hope that the most populous Arab state can become a stable country that is both tolerant and democratic.
One of the most important findings: Egyptians are among the most tolerant people in the region. Despite the church burnings and clashes between Egyptian Muslims and Christians that made worldwide headlines this year, two-thirds of Egyptians said they would not object to a person of a different religious faith moving next door. Only Lebanon is more tolerant.
By comparison, Gallup found that Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian Territories and Israel were the most intolerant countries in the Middle East, with four-fifths of their populations saying they would object to a neighbor of another faith.
Religion is important to Egyptians and most of them say their religious leaders should provide advice to the government, but they overwhelmingly reject the idea that Muslim clerics should have any official authority in governing the country. And less than one percent say Iran’s Islamic Republic should be their political model.
Almost a quarter of Egyptians support the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s moderate Islamic party, but by more than two to one they believe a parliament in which the Muslim Brotherhood had a strong, influential position would be a bad thing.
Moreover, the Gallup organization reports that of all the people it has polled around the world, Egyptians are the most likely to say that targeting and killing of civilians is never justified. Ninety-seven percent reject attacks on civilians and most believe peaceful means are sufficient to correct injustices. Not surprisingly, confidence in non-violent means of change has surged since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak.
Support for the revolution spanned all socio-economic levels of society. Eighty-three percent of Egyptians backed the protestors and 11 percent said they actually took part in the protests. That’s a huge number in a population of 80 million.
That also means that Egyptians have huge expectations. Three quarters are optimistic that they will enjoy a better life in five years time, but are less satisfied with their standard of living now than they were before the revolution. Their main concerns are jobs, decent housing and good health care.
With the disorganization of the police as a result of the revolution, Egyptians are also worried about crime. Forty percent say they are afraid to walk alone at night, but that seems to be popular hysteria. The survey shows that assaults and burglaries have actually decreased this year.
Gallup polled 1,000 Egyptians in door-to-door surveys in April, and has been conducting monthly follow-ups since then. Opinion polling of any kind, especially when conducted by foreign organizations, is a sensitive issue in the Middle East.
Prior to polling, Gallup had to submit the list of questions it wanted to ask for prior approval by the interim military government that has been ruling Egypt since Mubarak was overthrown. One of the questions the junta approved was whether the public still has confidence in the military. Ninety percent of Egyptians polled said yes.
On questions of foreign policy, there was no consensus on peace with Israel, with 47 percent saying it was a good thing, compared to 37 percent who oppose it.
And here is something Washington should note: 75 percent oppose U.S. aid to Egyptian political groups. And among Egyptians who say they want to emulate the American system of democracy, opposition is even stronger.
The picture of post-revolution Egypt that emerges from these findings is a country whose people want representative government that is guided by religious principles but is not a theocracy. Egyptians strongly favor free speech, freedom of religion and peaceful dissent. Seventy-five percent plan to vote when new elections are held and 79 percent think they will be fair and honest.
The bad news from Egypt is that it suffers from high rates of illiteracy and poverty. The good news is that despite these handicaps, most Egyptians have the same democratic instincts and aspirations as the citizens of advanced Western democracies.
They are neither dangerous radicals nor religious fanatics. And with a bit of luck and some nonpartisan help from their friends, their country could eventually become a democratic model for the rest of the Arab world.