Erdogan Most Popular Leader By Far Among Arabs

Instead, Turkey is viewed as having played the “most constructive” role in the past year’s events and its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, emerged as the most admired leader by far in the region, according to the 2011 edition of the annual “Arab Public Opinion Survey” conducted by Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution.

The survey, which was conducted during the last half of October, was based on detailed interviews of some 3,000 respondents from urban centres in Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It also included Saudi Arabia, the results from which, however, arrived too late to be weighted with the other five countries.

“Turkey is the biggest winner of the Arab Awakening,” said Telhami, who noted that, despite increasing disillusionment with Obama’s performance on Israel-Palestinian issues, the U.S. president himself appears to have gained some ground in Arab public opinion since the summer of 2010 when the last survey was conducted.

Nonetheless, most Arabs, according to the new poll, continue to believe that Washington’s policies in the Middle East are mainly driven by its desire to control oil and protect Israel from its Arab neighbours. Only five percent said they believe the U.S. is driven by the desire to spread human rights or democracy.

As in previous surveys, Israel and the United States are also seen as posing by far the greatest foreign threats to Arabs – at least several times greater than Iran despite the fact that a majority believe Tehran is trying to develop nuclear weapons and that its success in that effort would have a “negative” impact on the region.

The poll also found overwhelming support for opposition forces battling autocratic governments in Syria (86 percent) and Yemen (89 percent), as well as strong support in the region for the opposition in Bahrain (64 percent), although majorities in the two Gulf countries – the UAE and Saudi Arabia – said their sympathies lay more with the Al-Khalifa monarchy, according to Telhami.

It also showed a striking ambivalence about the foreign intervention in Libya that contributed to the eventual ouster – and killing – of Col. Muammar Gaddafi. Asked to assess, in retrospect, the intervention, 35 percent of respondents said it was the “right thing to do”, while 46 percent said it was the “wrong thing to do”.

“I would’ve have thought there was more support,” said Telhami, who, in addition to his Brookings fellowship, is the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland. He said Saudi respondents were evenly split on the question.

The survey results come amid persistent uncertainty about the outcome of the nearly year-old “Arab Spring”.

With deeply factionalised Yemen on a knife’s edge, continued repression and growing sectarian violence in Syria, and a major challenge to the military’s role on the eve of parliamentary elections later this month in Egypt, the survey results are likely to be closely read in world capitals.

Asked about their perceptions of the intention of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has ruled over Egypt since President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster last February, 21 percent of the 750 Egyptian respondents said it was to “advance the gains of the revolution”, while more than twice that number (43 percent) said it was to “slow or reverse” the revolution’s gains. Fourteen percent said the SCAF was “indifferent”.

Asked to pick who in a list of nine foreign leaders they would like the next Egyptian president to look like, a whopping 38 percent cited Erdogan; Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, 11 percent; former South Africa President Nelson Mandela, nine percent; and Saudi King Abdullah, eight percent. Obama was cited by only five percent of the respondents.

When the same question was put to respondents in all five countries, Erdogan also came out on top at 31 percent, followed distantly by Abdullah, Mandela, and Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah (nine percent), and Ahmadinejad (eight percent). Obama was cited by four percent, just behind both Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, but ahead of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

And when Egyptians were asked what foreign country they wanted their political system to most closely resemble, 44 percent chose Turkey, followed by France at 10 percent, and Saudi Arabia, China, and Germany at eight percent each.

“Turkey is really the model in Egypt,” said Telhami.

Asked to name two countries which they believed have played the most constructive role in the Arab Spring, half of respondents in all five countries chose Turkey; 30 percent, France; 24 percent, the U.S.; 20 percent, China; and 11 percent, Britain.

Those results, according to Telhami, may reflect the regional ambivalence toward foreign intervention – France and Britain having been the most aggressive; China, the least; while Washington’s role of “leading from behind” fell somewhere in between.

While Turkey emerged as the year’s superstar, the U.S. and Obama fared substantially better in Arab public opinion than in 2010, although not as well as in 2009 when hopes for major changes in U.S. Middle East policy under Obama were riding high. The 2010 survey was conducted shortly after the fatal interception by Israeli commandos of the Mavi Marmara flotilla to Gaza – an incident which created outrage against both Israel and the U.S., which defended the raid.

Thus, 26 percent of respondents in the five countries voiced favourable opinions of the U.S., up from only 10 percent last year. As for Obama, 34 percent voiced “positive” views this year, up from 19 percent in 2010, but down from 39 percent in 2009.

While 47 percent of Arab respondents said they were “hopeful” about U.S. Middle East policy in 2009, however, only 20 percent are “hopeful” today, up only marginally from 14 percent last year, according to the survey.

Much of the disillusionment appears tied to U.S. support for Israel, according to Telhami. Asked what two steps Washington could take to improve its standing in the region, 55 percent and 42 percent of respondents, respectively, said achieving an Israel-Palestine peace agreement and “stopping (U.S.) aid to Israel”.

Similarly, a wide plurality (46 percent) of respondents said the Israel-Palestine issue was their biggest disappointment about U.S. policy during the past year.

And while the poll found strong enduring support (67 percent) for a two-state solution among Arab respondents, it also uncovered a major loss of confidence that it could be achieved through bilateral negotiations, as Israel and the U.S. have insisted.

While 40 percent of respondents last year said they believed such negotiations could bring about a solution, only 20 percent believe that today. Nearly four in 10 (39 percent) respondents said it would only happen through an imposed settlement by the U.N. (24 percent) or the U.S. (15 percent).

On Iran, 64 percent of respondents said they believe it has the right to pursue a nuclear programme – up from 53 percent in 2009. Only 25 percent said it should be pressured to abandon the programme, down from 40 percent two years ago. As with Bahrain, however, majorities in both the UAE and Saudi Arabia, whose governments have charged that Iran is trying to dominate the Gulf, supported pressure.

They appear to have made some progress in persuading Arab public opinion elsewhere that Tehran poses a major threat. Eighteen percent of the respondents from the five countries named Iran when asked to name two countries that posed the greatest threat to them – up from 12 percent in 2009.

By comparison, however, Israel was named by 71 percent of respondents, and the U.S. by 59 percent.

And asked if there could be only one superpower in the world, which country they would prefer it to be, China topped the list at 23 percent – an increase of nine percent from 2009 –followed by Germany (15 percent), Russia (12 percent), and France (10 percent), a substantial decline from more than 30 percent last year. The U.S. was preferred by only seven percent, tied with Pakistan.

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com