There are many ways to measure the success of American foreign policy, and popularity is not necessarily the best one.
But when an administration and a president start out as Mr. Obama did, in essence reviling his predecessor’ policies in the Arab world and assuring Arabs that he had a new and better way, it is striking if the product is less popularity.
And that is the case in Egypt. A new Pew poll says that while Bush’s popularity in Egypt in his last year in office, 2008, was 22 percent, today Obama’s rating has fallen even lower–to 16 percent.
The same poll contains much interesting data. For example, only 39 percent of Egyptians think things are better now than when Mubarak ruled the country; only 29 percent expect that their economy will improve in the coming year. These numbers should keep President Morsi up at night.
The numbers on democracy are somewhat cheering. As the Pew narrative notes, “Two-in-three Egyptians [66%] believe democracy is the best form of government, while just 21% think that in some circumstances a non-democratic form of government can be preferable.” Asked whether democracy or a strong leader is more important, democracy wins 60 to 36 percent. Moreover “by a slender margin, Egyptians tend to prioritize democracy over stability. About half (51%) say it is more important for Egypt to have a democratic government, even if there is some risk of political instability. Slightly fewer (43%) believe it is more important to have a stable government, even if there is some risk it will not be fully democratic. However, the percentage who prioritize stability has increased since 2011, when just 32% held this view.” I would have expected higher numbers prizing stability, given Egypt’s history in the last few years.
When asked what their highest priorities are, 83 percent of Egyptians say improved economic conditions– but 81 percent say a fair judiciary, 60 percent say uncensored media, and 51 percent say freedom of speech. Interestingly, 32 percent say freedom of religion for minorities is “very important” and an additional 49 percent say it is “somewhat important.” In a country that is only 10-15 percent Coptic (and some would say lower), those are impressive numbers. They suggest that the government could attain wide public support for defending the Copts from violence, which it has largely been unwilling to do. The very recent State Department report on religious freedom in Egypt says this: “the government generally failed to prevent, investigate, or prosecute crimes against members of religious minority groups, especially Coptic Christians, which fostered a climate of impunity. In some cases, government authorities reacted slowly or with insufficient resolve while mobs attacked Christians and their property, or encouraged Christians to leave their homes.” President Morsi could do more; the failure is one of leadership.