New Polling, New Opportunities?

Democracy

For policymakers seeking an entry-point to engage the Middle East in dialogue, there may be an opening created by the apparent disillusionment of many ME societies with both Islamist groups and Muslim leaders. A new poll, just released by the Pew Research Center (though the survey was actually conducted last May and June, which is probably important to consider), reveals that not only is there little enthusiasm for either Hamas or Hezbollah across Muslim-majority nations, but many political leaders are suffering from Dick Cheney-level favorability ratings that in any truly democratic country would ensure landslide defeat at the ballot box.

Only two countries reported majority support for Hamas (Jordan at 56 percent and Egypt at 52), while a mere 44 percent of Palestinians — and an even lower 37 percent in Gaza — espoused support for the hybrid Islamist-nationalist organization. Conversely, Palestinians displayed a much deeper respect for Hezbollah with 61 percent support — but a majority of Egyptians frowned upon the Iranian-backed Shi'a movement and, perhaps of greater significance, a strong 64 percent of Lebanese citizens disapprove of Hezbollah and its demonstrated pattern of behavior.

As we dig more deeply into the numbers, however, we find that the Lebanese opnion bracket is a aggregation of views that are sharply divided upon religious lines; a nearly unanimous 97 percent of Shi'as back Hezbollah, while only 18 percent of Maronite Christians and 2 percent of Sunnis feel the same. But this isn't much of a surprise. In order for Hezbollah to accomplish its raison d’être of pursuing Islamist governance, it must endear itself to society through a variety of social services which, in many cases, are enjoyed predominantly by Shi'a communities. What's unclear is whether or not these views remain true today since Pew wrapped up its polling before Lebanon's election last year, meaning the numbers may not reflect potential shifts in opinion resulting from Lebanon's messy post-election politics.

Regardless, the unique circumstances of Lebanon underscore a regional point of significance: In the absence of wildly or even moderately popular leaders, there are a number of unmet needs — social and economic — waiting to be filled, which Hezbollah and other groups are more than eager to do. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was the only leader in the survey who enjoyed widespread support throughout multiple Muslim countries. In fact, Gregg Carlstrom of the Majlis parsed the numbers to show that Mahmoud Abbas, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Hassan Nasrallah (leader of Hezbollah) have all either declined in popularity, or seen their favorables stagnate at severely low levels.

What does this all mean? Well over at the Arabist, Issandr El Amrani takes a look at the Egyptian polling data and wonders if government repression could be responsible for the "lack of visibility of pro-Hamas sentiment." It's certainly true that many regional governments devote massive amounts of resources to propagandize against, and crackdown on, what they see as Islamist threats to stability. Egypt and Jordan are two of the most notable culprits on that front, and it bears mentioning that they are also the only two countries in this Pew poll with majority-level popular support for Hamas.

And this should serve as a warning. It seems that we all would like to avoid a scenario where decreasingly popular political leaders, fearing for their future, demonize and repress extreme Islamist groups to the point where the public, disaffected and looking for change, actually begins to view the Islamist "victims" as perhaps a viable alternative. Many political leaders have been in power for years if not decades, and publics are beginning to doubt their competency. It's not that Hamas and Hezbollah may supplant the political establishment due to an overwhelming popularity — quite the contrary it seem in many places — but this polling, to the extent that its reliable, shows that the region could be vulnerable as societies struggle to find a political trajectory amidst the dueling forces of modernism and fundamentalism.

It is in this environment, with unpopular leaders and ineffectual political infrastructures, that U.S. policy-makers might be able to engage the region with a variety of tools to help develop civil societies and promote a more open and fruitful dialogue among those seeking reform. An entry-point, for example, might be women's rights and education, issues that enjoy overwhelming support within many of the survey's featured countries. The U.S. foreign policy apparatus already has a few programs that fit this mold, including the Middle East Partnership Initiative which provides direct support to local organizations in the greater Middle Eastern region. The value of this sort of engagement comes in its ability to help defuse the power and pervasive influence of Islamist groups who utilize social services as a method of communal entrenchment. Cultivating relationships and building a civil society capacity that responds to the needs and aspirations of local populations could very well lay the groundwork for powerful reform movements. And if a groundswell of reformist activity does indeed emerge, supported by strong and savvy civil organizations, perhaps the unpopular and autocratic regimes will begin to crumble — or at the very least capitulate to the democratic demands of the people.

Egypt, Hamas, Hezbollah, Jordan, Lebanon, Middle East, Palestinians, Public Opinion, Reform Movement, US Foreign Policy