American Public Sees Democratization of Middle East as Positive for US

American Public Sees Democratization of Middle East as Positive for US

April 11, 2011

Favors Democratization Even if Countries Become Less Friendly to US

Full report (PDF)
Questionnaire with findings (PDF)

An overwhelming majority of Americans think that it would be positive for the United States if the Middle East were to become more democratic and a solid majority would favor this happening even if this resulted in the country being more likely to oppose US policies.

These are some of the findings of a new poll conducted by the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development and the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland and directed by Shibley Telhami and Steven Kull. The poll of 802 Americans was fielded April 1-5 by Knowledge Networks.

The poll is being released in conjunction with the opening of the seventh Forum on US-Islamic World Relations being held in Washington DC April 12-14. The Forum is a joint program of the Saban Center of the Brookings Institution and the Foreign Ministry of Qatar.

Asked, “if the countries of the Middle East become more democratic,” how this would be for United States “over the next few years,” 65% say it would be mostly positive, while 31% say it would be mostly negative. Asked about “the long run,” an even larger number–76%–say democratization would be mostly positive for the US.

A majority of 57% say that they “would want to see a country become more democratic even if this resulted in the country being more likely to oppose US policies.” This number is up from 48% when PIPA asked this question in 2005.

“While some observers are worried about the potential effects of greater democratization for US interests in the Middle East, most Americans are cheering the move toward more democracy, even if this might pose some challenges for the US,” comments Steven Kull, director of PIPA.

Americans are not entirely confident, though, that the changes occurring in the Arab world will lead to more democracy. Fifty-one percent say that they think it is likely, but 47% are more doubtful. This divides sharply along partisan lines with two out of three Republicans pessimistic, two out of three Democrats optimistic, and independents leaning to the optimistic side.

More see the popular uprisings as mostly “about ordinary people seeking freedom and democracy” (45%) than “about Islamist groups seeking political power”(15%). Another 37% see these forces as being equally influential.

A clear majority, though, believes that ” It is possible for Islamic countries to be democratic” (56%), while 41% say that “democracy and Islam are incompatible.” While a large majority of Democrats hold this position (69%) as well as a slight majority of independents (52%), while among Republicans 51% say that democracy and Islam are incompatible.

Similarly, 59% overall, and 68% of Democrats and 59% of independents, think that it is possible for Muslim and Western cultures to find common ground, while 52% of Republicans say that violent conflict is inevitable.

Trend line questions show signs of modest improvement in American attitudes toward Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria. Majorities express favorable views of the Arab people in general (56%) the Saudi people (57%) and especially the Egyptian people (70%)–putting the Egyptian people nearly on a par with the Israeli people (73% favorable).

Significant minorities said that the Arab uprisings increased their sympathy for the Arab people (39%), and their sense of how similar the aspirations of the Arab world are to theirs (33%). Only very small minorities said that it decreased these feelings and perceptions.

“There is evidence that the Arab uprisings have contributed to improving views of Arab countries and quite positive views of the Arab people, especially Egyptians,” comments Shibley Telhami of the Anwar Sadat Chair and the Saban Center of the Brookings Institution.

Nonetheless, when asked how the United States should position itself relative to the demonstrators and the governments, two thirds say that it should not take a position in Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia or Jordan. Among those who favor the US taking a position, though, they overwhelmingly favor the US supporting the demonstrators.

Now that the US has participated in air strikes in Libya, a majority is supportive, with 54% approving. However, this is down from 68% who approved when CBS News asked this same question in March just as the action was getting started. Views vary by party affiliation with Democrats approving by 63%, Republicans by 55% and independents being divided.

If “the air campaign does not succeed in protecting civilians from attacks by Qaddafi’s forces,” a majority of 59% say they would oppose “providing arms to the Libyan rebels.”

The uprisings in the Arab world have had little effect on American views of the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Two thirds continue to have a favorable view of Israel. But the same number also continue to favor the US not taking sides in the conflict–unchanged from a Sadat Chair poll conducted last November.

The dominant view continues to be that the Obama administration’s efforts to resolve the conflict are at about the right level, with four in ten taking this position–unchanged from November. Among the rest, while in November more said that the Administration was not trying hard enough (30% not hard enough, 21% too hard), now views are evenly divided.

The study was conducted using the web-enabled KnowledgePanel®, a probability-based panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population. Initially, participants are chosen scientifically by a random selection of telephone numbers and residential addresses. Persons in selected households are then invited by telephone or by mail to participate in the web-enabled KnowledgePanel®. For those who agree to participate, but do not already have Internet access, Knowledge Networks provides a laptop and ISP connection. More technical information is available at


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