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Let's Get It Right: the Arab Spring Requires a New Narrative

Posted: 06/22/11 01:38 PM ET

Old habits die hard. As we assess political challenges emerging from new governments in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in the Middle East face, we continue to cling to a failed narrative.

Stepping off the plane and walking through the airport on my way to a conference on the "The US in a Changing Middle East," my eye caught the front cover of The Atlantic. What attracted my attention was not the title of its lead article "Danger: Falling Tyrants" but rather the picture of a fully veiled woman with only her eyes showing with the header, "Is This the Face of Arab Democracy."

Authoritarian rulers in the Arab world and Western governments and political commentators for decades justified support for repressive authority regimes maintaining that the alternative was "chaos" and an Islamist takeover and Arab culture and Islam were incompatible with democracy. The Arab uprisings have discredited the conventional wisdom and challenge policymakers to pursue a new narrative. Instead, they confirm what numerous opinion polls previously reported: while religion remains important, majorities across much of the Muslim world prefer democracy over theocracy.

Gallup's newly released 'Egypt from Tahrir to Transition' offers important insights into Egyptian attitudes, a number of which have a direct bearing on the old conventional wisdom and fears: authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere are a bulwark the triumph of Islamists, "other Irans" and and imposition of Islamic states. Egyptians have virtually no interest (1%) in modelling their political system on the Iran's Islamic Republic. Most Egyptians (69%) think religious leaders should be limited to an advisory role to government authorities. Moreover, despite being viewed favorably by the majority of Egyptians, the fabled Muslim Brotherhood has a no more than 15% of public "support." Not only do many overestimate popular support for Islamists, but most also assume this preference for the decades old organization is synonymous with anti-Americanism. The evidence says otherwise. According to the Gallup survey, Muslim Brotherhood supporters are slightly more likely (25%) than the general public (18%) to approve of the leadership of the United States.

Gallup data also highlights another misconception; Muslim predispositions to violence? On the contrary: Egyptians are the most likely public in the world to say the targeting and killing of civilians is never justified (97%). Not only do Egyptians reject terrorism as a tactic on moral grounds, but most (79%) also believe that 'peaceful means are effective for correcting injustice.'

Clinging to a failed narrative and the threat of a hostile Islamist takeover, risks succumbing to the temptation to "encourage" or influence a specific outcome in Arab elections which will validate the concerns of Egyptians and others in the Arab world. Many Egyptians remain concerned about possible U.S. interference in their political affairs. According to Gallup, about two-thirds of Egyptians think the U.S. will try to interfere in Egypt's political future as opposed to letting the people of the country decide alone. Additionally, a similar number disagree that the U.S. is serious about encouraging democratic systems of government in their region. To build trust and strengthen our relationship with newly empowered Arab societies, we must continue to stand for democratic principles not political parties or individuals.

Like all people, the people of Egypt want to forge their political future independently -- especially those who most admire America's democratic principles. Almost 90% of Egyptians who see the U.S. as a political model for their country oppose U.S. aid to political groups in their country, more than those who hold this view among the general public (75%). Perhaps as a result, 52% of Egyptians oppose accepting economic aid as a whole -- 43% among those who believe Egypt should look to the U.S. model of democracy.

As we watch the emergence of new governments and the continued struggles for regime change or democratic reforms, we must move beyond a now discredited narrative and support Arabs, but stand back, as they exercise the very freedoms our country was founded upon and which we cherish and promote.

John L. Esposito is University Professor and Founding Director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. He is co-author of Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, and author of The Future of Islam.

Dalia Mogahed directs the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center as well as the Center for Muslim Studies. They are the co-authors of "Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think"

 
 
 

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