Arab Nations Say "No Thanks" to American Democracy Promotion
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
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
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
But Arab nations are not homogenous, he said, citing variations in the order given to these priorities in different
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