Arab poll results and the way forward

Arab poll results and the way forward

People across the globe are trying to comprehend the significance of what is happening in the Middle East, particularly in terms of what people on the ground are thinking.

The October 2011 Arab Public Opinion Poll, released on Nov. 21 by Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland sheds some light on this question. Surveying 3,000 people in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates, the poll assessed attitudes toward the Egyptian elections, U.S.-Middle East relations, the Arab-Israeli conflict and Iran.

Results indicate that, although favorable views of the U.S. have increased from 10 percent in 2010 to 26 percent in 2011, a majority of Arabs polled still hold unfavorable views of the country (59 percent). A majority, 52 percent, remain discouraged by the Obama administration’s policies in the Middle East. This is down from 65 percent in 2010, though still up from only 15 percent in 2009.

And when asked what two steps the U.S. could take to improve their status, 55 percent replied “an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.”

Such unfavorable results can partially be explained by the suspicions many Arabs hold about U.S. policy vis-a-vis Arab authoritarian regimes and Israel, as well as its actual or perceived conflict with Muslim-majority countries.

To improve its standing in the Arab world, the U.S. might be best served by pursuing a new strategy for a new Middle East, one that is people-centered and performance-based, focusing on communication, security and assistance.

This might include putting forward a broad conception of democracy that encompasses human development, economic freedom, fair, free and frequent elections and human rights for individual citizens, minority groups and women.

The U.S. could follow up with Arab governments to ensure inclusion and pluralism in politics. Arab populations cannot afford to replace one type of dictatorship – whether religious or secular – with another.

There is also a need for the U.S. to communicate its intentions and policies accurately and clearly and avoid reserving pressure for real reforms to private meetings. This could help counteract widespread misconceptions that contribute to low levels of favorability.

Given that a majority of Arabs polled indicated a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would improve U.S. standing in the region, a serious contribution to resolving this conflict in a just manner might be another way the U.S. voice would be respected.

Further, the U.S. could emphasize human security rather than military prowess by creating a regional consensus for peace that serves the interests of all parties, as they themselves define them.

Moreover, with billions of dollars of U.S. economic and military assistance entering the Middle East each year, public concerns in both the United States and the Middle East about regional assistance could be helped by linking such assistance to the ability of governments to achieve country-specific goals. These would mainly entail concrete and transparent democratic improvements, as well as economic measures aimed at improving quality of life and opportunities for the general public.

As a general rule, citizens of a given country are permanent, leaders change. Therefore, it is with the ordinary people in the Middle East that the U.S. must develop lasting partnerships.

Saliba Sarsar is Professor of Political Science and Associate Vice President for Global Initiatives at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, New Jersey. This abridged article originally appeared in the Common Ground News Service.