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Arab Nations Say "No Thanks" to US Democracy Promo

Arab Nations Say "No Thanks" to American Democracy Promotion

By William Fisher
t r u t h o u t | Report

Thursday 10 May 2007

The US war to bring democracy to Iraq has caused a large majority of Middle Eastern Arabs to reject any similar American campaigns in their countries.

This is among the principal findings of a new attitude survey of Arabs in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Lebanon. The survey findings were presented by Dr. James J. Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, in testimony last week before two subcommittees of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Zogby appeared before the Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight and the Subcommittee on Middle East and Asia.

"In almost every case, Arabs still admired American values, people, culture and products. But they did not like US policies. And it was this that drove down America's overall favorable ratings and drove up US negatives," Zogby said.

He added that Arabs are judging the US not on how Americans live or what they say about themselves, but on how the US treats them - how they perceive America is applying its values to them.

When asked whether their overall attitude toward the US was shaped by our stated values or our policies, "Arabs by significant majorities indicate that it is our policies that are decisive," Zogby said.

He told the Congressional committee that the survey showed the most significant policy issues shaping negative attitudes were "our treatment of the Palestinians, our policy in Iraq, and our overall treatment of Arabs and Islam in general - sometimes citing specific practices (detention, torture, etc.) These negative behaviors combine to call into question our adherence to our stated values."

"Our polling has shown us that Arabs, like people all over the world, have, as their principal political and personal concerns, issues related to their families and their economic well-being, health care and the educational opportunities available to themselves and their children," Zogby said.

But, he testified, Arabs - even those disposed to like Americans - overwhelmingly rejected (US) help in dealing with matters of internal reform. Even those who value (America's) "freedom and democracy" did not want our assistance in promoting democracy in their country.

Those who sought our assistance wanted two things, Zogby said. "They want us to help solve the Arab-Israeli conflict; and they want assistance in capacity-building - expanding employment, and improving health care and education."

These are the customary objectives of America's traditional foreign aid programs.

"Make no mistake," Zogby declared. "The situation of the Palestinians, (US) actions and policies in Iraq, (America's) perceived complicity in last year's war in Lebanon, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, secret prisons, and last year's Dubai Ports World debacle have taken and continue to take a toll on America's standing" in the Arab world.

"When Arabs think about America, it is in terms of how (US policies) have impacted their region and lives," he said.

He explained that poll results from four Arab countries "establish the striking difference between attitudes toward American science, freedom and democracy, people and movies, on the one hand, and America's Middle East policies on the other."

Describing the numbers as "startling," he said 52 percent of Saudis like our values of freedom and democracy, but only eight percent support our policy toward Arabs. Sixty-three percent of the Lebanese people like Americans, while only six percent approve of our policy toward the Palestinians. Seventy-two percent of Egyptians like American science and technology, and 60 percent like Americans; yet only one percent feel favorably about our policies toward Arabs and the Palestinians."

The polling organization, Zogby International, has been conducting similar surveys for a number of years. During these years, America's "negatives" have been steadily rising.

Zogby said that in earlier polls the "American people" were viewed positively in most Arab countries. But by December 2006 only "American education" received a net favorable rating.

"This represents a drop in favorability ratings from 52 percent to 22 percent for American movies in Saudi Arabia; in Lebanon, the favorable rating for the American people dropped 19 percent; and in Egypt the favorable rating for the American people dropped from 60 percent to only 23 percent. In Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, the majority view of "American freedom/democracy" and "American products" is positive. In earlier polls, the "American people" were viewed positively in most Arab countries. In 2006, this is the case only in Lebanon," he said.

He said the results of the current survey "establish the striking difference between attitudes toward American science, freedom and democracy, people and movies, on the one hand, and America's Middle East policies on the other. For three-quarters to five-sixths of Arabs, our policies are more determinative of their attitude toward us than our values."

But Arab nations are not homogenous, he said, citing variations in the order given to these priorities in different Arab countries.

Rank orders can change over time in response to local events, he said. "For example, in 2005 the survey found that Egyptians ranked expanding employment and health care as their top priorities with improving education second. But in the same year in the United Arab Emirates, improving education was the number one concern, followed by employment and health care. In Saudi Arabia, where in 2004 the top-rated issues were health care, expanding employment, and improving education in that order. But after the May 2005 terrorist attack in the Kingdom, our 2005 survey found that combating extremism and terrorism jumped to second place (from number seven in 2004) as a national priority."

In most Arab countries, he said, "Up until the disastrous summer of 2006 (with the wars in Lebanon and Gaza, and the escalation of civil conflict in Iraq), our respondents answered what we call the 'Reagan questions' in the affirmative. They indicated that they felt 'better off than they were four year ago' and expected that they would be better off in the next four years. By December of 2006, however, this sense of satisfaction and optimism had changed dramatically, sliding downward in most countries."

"In Morocco, on the Western edge of the Arab world, 32 percent say our democratic values are important to how they view the US versus 88 percent who say our Iraq policy is important in how they view America. In the United Arab Emirates, on the Eastern edge of the Arab world, 23 percent say our democratic values and love of freedom are important in their perceptions of the US, but seventy-three percent say that our treatment of Muslims and Arabs is significant in how they view our country."

The shift from "values" to "policies" has had a major impact on Arab attitudes, he said. For example:

• There is a hardening of negative attitudes toward the US, and now even a downward slide in attitudes toward our people, culture, values and products.

• There is less confidence that there will be peace and stability in the region in the next five years, with growing concern in several countries about the regional consequences of an Iraqi civil war; the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and a mounting concern about Iran's intentions and US-Iranian tensions.

• There is a turning inward. Arabs are investing more in their own economies instead of in the West, and more engaged than ever with problems closer to home.

• There is a turning away from the US, as Arabs are factoring the East (China, India and Southeast Asia) more significantly into their future investment strategies.

• There is growing public pressure on Arab governments, especially those who maintain strong ties to the US, to distance themselves from our policies.

America's reputation in the Arab world, Zogby said, could be improved if we "listen to what Arab opinion is telling us, and take their concerns seriously. What they want from us is to play the role of peacemaker in working to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict; to find a responsible end to the Iraq war that promotes national reconciliation and regional security; to find support for regional capacity-building that works to expand employment, improve health care, and increase educational opportunities; and an application of our values to our relationships with the people and countries of the region that establishes us as a partner in their efforts to improve the quality of their lives and defeat the extremists who threaten our mutual security."

Opposition to US democracy-promotion programs is not limited to the Arab world. Activist and attorney Shirin Ebadi, the first Muslim woman and first Iranian to win the Nobel Peace Prize, was asked by a PBS "NewsHour" interviewer if US-funded programs of this type would be helpful in her country.

Ebadi replied, "No, I don't think that it benefits me or people like me, because whoever speaks about democracy in Iran will be accused of having been paid by the United States. Democracy promotion is seen as a euphemism for regime change. You cannot deliver democracy with guns and bombs."


William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and in many other parts of the world for the US State Department and USAID for the past thirty years. He began his work life as a journalist for newspapers and for The Associated Press in Florida. Go to The World According to Bill Fisher for more.

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