Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Posted by Washington Report on Middle East Affairs on August 01, 2014 in News Clips

On June 4, 2009, a newly inaugurated President Barack Obama gave a much-anticipated speech at Egypt’s Cairo University. ­The “Cairo speech,” as it has come to be known, was to signal a change in relations between the U.S. and the Middle East.

Five years later, what has changed? That was the topic addressed by James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), in a recent Zogby Research Services poll (conducted in May) on Arab attitudes toward the United States. The Middle East Institute and AAI co-hosted a launch of the poll’s results and a discussion of their significance at the SEIU Conference Center in Washington, DC on June 3.

One of the poll’s main findings was the enduring importance of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In six of the seven countries polled—Palestine, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia—the “continuing occupation of Palestinian lands” was seen as the “greatest obstacle to peace and stability in the Middle East,” Zogby noted. Only in the UAE was the conflict not seen as the most important challenge to U.S.-Arab relations.

“Palestine remains the key,” Zogby observed. “Once again,” added Marwan Muasher, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “the Arab-Israeli conflict remains at the center of the radar screen.”

Arabs view U.S. interference in the region as the second greatest obstacle to peace and stability in the Middle East, Zogby noted.

Muasher believes this has important ramifications for U.S. policy toward Syria. Even though most of the people polled voiced opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, it’s important to remember they don’t want the U.S. to become militarily involved, Muasher cautioned. “Non-intervention is what the region wants, not just what U.S. public opinion wants,” he observed.

While the poll revealed that Iran is viewed unfavorably in every country except Palestine and Lebanon, Muasher noted that the poll also found that the nuclear issue is not a major concern among citizens of the region (aside from some Gulf countries). Washington thus would be wise to avoid a military conflict with Iran, he advised.

While the conclusion of the Iraq war has boosted the image of the U.S. in the region, the country’s favorable rating remains low, Zogby noted. The majority view of the U.S. in every country is negative, with 77 percent of Moroccans and 86 percent of Lebanese holding unfavorable opinions.

Nevertheless, Zogby revealed, feelings toward the U.S. actually have improved since 2011, jumping from 2 percent to 27 percent among Palestinians and from 10 percent to 30 percent among Egyptians. “There’s an uptick, which is interesting,” he said. “I don’t know how to account for the uptick except for the lower profile” the U.S. has been keeping in the Arab world.

President Obama’s personal popularity, however, has suffered since he gave his 2009 speech. He is generally viewed unfavorably, falling far behind Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, despite Turkey’s dropping popularity among the Arab states, another finding of the poll.

Whereas a majority of those polled in Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were “hopeful” after the 2009 speech, today that hope seems to have faded. “The blush is off the rose, one might say,” quipped Zogby.

Another interesting insight from the poll results was that a majority in Palestine, Morocco, Egypt and Lebanon felt that the U.S. had been “not supportive enough” of Egypt during the presidency of Mohamed Morsi. Barbara Slavin, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor, wondered if this result was “not nostalgia for Morsi necessarily, but a lack of support for [President Abdel Fattah el-] Sisi....Are Egyptians wishing now that Morsi had been left in place?” she asked, joking that perhaps Egyptians enjoy blaming the U.S. no matter what happens.

Zogby concluded the discussion by remarking that the U.S. should continue its policy of maintaining a light footprint in the Middle East. Arabs prefer “the Arab world sorting out their own problems, rather than the U.S. solving the problems,” he stated.

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