Moments of Truth in Libya and Egypt

I awoke this morning to the horrifying news of the death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other consular officials during a mob attack on the consulate in Benghazi, which followed yesterday's storming of the embassy in Cairo. The embassy riots over an absurd, obscure anti-Islam movie are more "Danish Cartoons" than "Iranian Hostage Crisis" and were following a depressingly familiar script until the deaths in Libya. But now the stakes are far higher.

It would be a tragic mistake to allow the images from Cairo and Benghazi to undermine American support for the changes in the Arab world. The protesters in Cairo and Benghazi are no more the true face of the Arab uprisings than al Qaeda was the face of Islam after 9/11. We should not allow the actions of a radical fringe to define our views of an entire group. The aspirations for democratic change of many millions of Arab citizens must not be delegitimated by the violent acts of a small group of radicals.  

But the response to the eruption by empowered publics, elected leaders and influential voices across political society -- including, especially, Islamists -- really does matter. Authoritarian regimes in the past frequently allowed, or even encouraged, such violent eruptions over these issues. Islamist movements in perennial opposition leaped at the chance to score political points while taking no responsibility for what followed. Today will be a pivotal moment in the urgent debates about how such movements will respond to political power and a stake in the political system. Libya's leaders thus far look to be passing that test. Egypt's do not.   

Libya was the location of the greater horror, with the death of Stevens and his consular staffers. But across the Libyan political spectrum there has been an immediate rush of condemnation of the attacks and deep empathy with the American victims. Mohammed al-Magariaf, president of Libya's National Council, quickly declared that "in the strongest possible words, in all languages, we condemn, reject, and denounce what happened in Benghazi yesterday in the assault on the US Consulate." Deputy Prime Minister Mustafa Abu Shagur said "I condemn these barbaric acts in the strongest possible terms. This is an attack on America, Libya and free people everywhere." Prime Minister Abd al-Rahim al-Keib offered similar strong condemnation. Libyan officials have promised to bring those responsible for the killings to justice. Libyans online have been similarly outraged and appalled. My Twitter timeline has filled with angry and outraged comments from Libyans denouncing the attacks and expressing sympathy and support for the dead Americans. Numerous protests have been announced for the next few days against the attackers.    

In short, the response from Libya suggests a broad national rejection at both the governmental and societal level of the anti-American agitation. The leaders have said the right things and have done their part to quickly pre-empt a spiral of conflict and recrimination between Americans and Libyans. And the United States has in turn responded with a calm but firm response which unequivocally condemned the attacks but committed to continuing to cooperate with Libyans against a common challenge. And, as President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton both emphasized repeatedly in their remarks today, many Libyans came to the defense of the Americans at the consulate -- exactly the right move, isolating and marginalizing the violent attackers rather than exaggerating and empowering their claims. And they will need it, as the attacks also clearly demonstrate Libya's ongoing problems of state capacity -- lack of adequate capability to ensure security, to disarm militias, or to police such outbursts. 

In Egypt, on the other hand, President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood has been notably invisible. To this point, we have heard no statements from Egyptian government officials condemning the assault on the embassy, no expressions of concern or sympathy, no suggestion of any fault on their own side. The Muslim Brotherhood had previously been planning rallies against the notorious film, and at the time of this writing has not canceled them. Even when they finally issued a statement condemning the violence in Libya, they were not forthcoming on Cairo. They seem far more concerned at the moment with their domestic political interest in protecting their right flank against Salafi outbidding than with behaving like the governing party of a state. 

Morsi and the Brotherhood do not seem to understand, or perhaps they simply do not care, how important their public stance is today in defining their image. The United States has taken real risks by engaging with the Brotherhood, pushing for democratic change despite their likely victory in fair elections, and insisting that the Egyptian military allow the completion of the transition after Morsi's victory. That was necessary to have any hope of genuine democratic change in Egypt, and the right position to take. But I suspect that many in Washington will feel that they have been repaid with Morsi's silence after the breach of the embassy wall which could well have resulted in the same kind of tragedy as in Benghazi. And that will have enduring effects on the nature and extent of American support for Egypt's transition -- how much harder is it going to be to get debt relief through congress now? It is quite telling that Obama said nothing about Egypt in his remarks about the deaths in Benghazi. 

The response to the attacks by Libyans and Egyptians is in many ways more important than the attacks themselves, and certainly more important than the absurd film. President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are facing a critical test right now ... whether or not they realize its importance. 


Marc Lynch

Snapshots of Middle East public opinion

I've been busy the last few days with a trip to Iowa -- thanks University of Iowa and Drake University for a gracious welcome!; a panel discussion today on the regional politics of the Syrian crisis (video will be posted soon); a few video interviews for a new series of POMEPS Conversations with Middle East experts (to be launched shortly);  and updates to the POMEPS Arab uprising bibliography (coming soon).  But I wanted to briefly note two intriguing public opinion surveys relevant to Middle East policy debate --- one from the United States, and one from Jordan. Both suggest reasons for doubting popular calls for an activist American policy towards Syria and the broader Middle East.... for better or for worse.  

First:  Jordan.  The University of Jordan's Center for Strategic Studies, which for the last couple of decades has been the most reliable public opinion survey research unit in the Kingdom, just released a fascinating report on Jordanian attitudes towards Syria. Jordan has been one of the states most directly affected by the escalating flow of refugees from the Syrian catastrophe.  After absorbing refugee waves from Palestine and from Iraq, the Syrian influx is putting extraordinary pressure on the Hashemite Kingdom -- although this is too often used an excuse by a regime causing more than enough problems for itself (see: disastrous new election law or absurd new restrictions on online media).   Opponents of reform have found ample opportunity to argue that the current crisis makes it too dangerous to open up... a perspective which I fear will only exacerbate Jordan's internal crisis, but to which security officials cling.  (I continue to believe that Syrian refugees, while a real problem, barely crack the top ten list of problems confronting Jordan -- more attention should be paid to corruption, economic policy, the useless Parliament, tribal unrest, the crackdown on media and internet freedoms, and so much more). 

The CSS survey found that Jordanians are not in the mood to host yet another wave of refugees. 80% of the Jordanian public wants Syrians confined to refugee camps, and 65% doesn't want Jordan to welcome any more Syrian refugees at all. 74% see Syrian refugees outside of designated camps as a threat to Jordan's stability -- with greater numbers agreeing with that stance in the north where most of the Syrian refugees are concentrated. Syrians and their advocates will be profoundly depressed b these results.  

Jordanians are also sharply divided, according to the survey, about what is even going on in their northern neighbor.  45% say that the events in Syria represent a popular revolution, while 41% describe it as a foreign conspiracy.  57% think that the Syrian opposition is tied to foreign powers, a sharp departure from earlier perceptions.   As to what to do, 54% of Jordanians say they would like to see Bashar al-Assad leave office.  But only 5% express support for foreign military intervention --- worth keeping in mind when you hear people saying that Arabs are calling out for American action in Syria. Such findings are also food for thought for those (such as me) who have argued that al-Jazeera and other transnational Arab media have a key role in shaping Arab public opinion --- after a year of non-stop advocacy for the Syrian opposition, how is it that al-Jazeera has only convinced 45% of Jordanians of its interpretative frame?

Another survey on Jordanian opinion towards Syria was also released recently, this one from the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha (thanks to friends on Twitter for drawing this one to my attention last night).  Its findings were rather dramatically different.  In that survey, 56% of Jordanians described events in Syria as a popular revolution (the narrative preferred by Doha-based al-Jazeera) and only 31% as a foreign conspiracy.  82% wanted Bashar al-Assad to step down,but only 3% supported foreign intervention to accomplish that goal.   

Over in Egypt, al-Ahram reports that 77% of Egyptians approve of President Mohammed el-Morsi's performance in office.  This is the first poll of its kind that I've seen since his electoral victory;  it's done by an organization about which I don't know much, so I can't speak to its credibility.   To the extent that the poll is considered credible -- and there's a long history of doubtful Egyptian opinion polling -- these results would suggest support far beyond either Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood base or the 51% who voted for him in the hotly contested Presidential runoff.  60% of the respondents said they would vote for Morsi if the elections were held tomorrow-- far more than his share of the vote in the actual elections, but considerably below his approval rating. But I would like to see a lot more polling before coming to any conclusions about solid trends in Egyptian opinion on these matters. 

Meanwhile, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs has just released its regular survey of American views of the world.   While my FP pal Dan Drezner has already related key results of that suvey relevant to the presidential election, I thought I would just highlight some of the key Middle East related results.  I was struck by the fact that 67% now see the Iraq war as "not worth it" -- the highest result since the Chicago Council started asking that question on 2003, and crucial context for any discussion of U.S. policy options towards Syria. 68% believe (correctly) that the invasion of Iraq has not had a positive effect on the spread of democracy in the Middle East -- neocon fantasies aside, if anything Iraq's horrors provided a cautionary tale to most in the region about what could go wrong and probably helped prop up authoritarian regimes in the region by making them look better in comparison. 

Beyond the retrospective view of Iraq, 71% in the Chicago Council survey say (correctly, in my humble opinion) that the Iraq experience should make the U.S. "more cautious about the use of military force against rogue regimes."  This is consistent with a wide range of other polling, which consistently shows very low support for U.S. military action in Syria.  There is just no appetite out there for U.S. military intervention in Syria, no matter how many Washington Post opeds or John McCain speeches argue for one.  ForeignPolicy had previously reported the key findings of this survey on Syria --  a broad desire to do something, but only 22% supporting bombing Syrian targets and 14% support for U.S. troops on the ground in Syria. 

The broader theme is one of humility about what the U.S. can or should attempt to accomplish through military means abroad.  But I was also pleased to see that only 13% of Americans said that the U.S. should not have taken part at all in the Libyan intervention -- and, at the same time, that only 7% said that the U.S. should have played "a leading role."  Apparently leading from behind is just fine with Americans who don't write for the Weekly Standard or the Washington Post, especially when it works.   And it's striking that 70% oppose a U.S. military strike against Iran over its nuclear program without UN authorization. 

Beyond Syria, I was pleased to see that American opinion viewed the Arab uprisings as a positive rather than negative development, with 34% describing the Arab spring as "mostly good" and 24% as "mostly bad."   But a 13 point increase in those saying that the U.S. should end its economic support for Egypt could suggest a broader concern about trends in that transition --- or, perhaps, just a broader inward turn and reluctance to spend scarce money abroad (which I, personally, would find short-sighted).  I think turning our back on the Arab world would be a profound mistake -- but clearly, the case for a continuing American interest in partnering with Arab governments and pushing Arab democracy needs to be made. 

Both the Jordanian and the American surveys discussed here are just snapshots --- but both are revealing of some important trends. I offer them up here more as data points for ongoing discussion than as conclusive evidence.. and only wish there were more such data from the Middle East upon which to draw to credibly assess the views of Arab publics at a time when they matter more than ever.  

P.S. -- I wrote this piece a few years ago on what we can and can't learn from public opinion surveys in the Arab world.  It might still be relevant.  I'm just glad that the surveys aren't still overwhelmingly focused on America-centric questions like "how do you feel about America."

NOTE:  post updated this morning to include the ACPRS survey.