Though the situation remains volatile and fluid, it still seems likely that the increasingly violent turmoil convulsing Egypt will eventually produce a government that more closely reflects public opinion there. At that point, the choices facing the United States could become even more vexing than those it faces today, as embattled President Hosni Mubarak struggles to maintain his power through this fall’s scheduled election.
Through polling by the Pew Global Attitudes Project and other Western media organizations in recent years, we have a surprisingly robust picture of mass attitudes in Egypt. From an American perspective, that picture is mostly ominous. On issues relating to the U.S. and Israel, a broad cross section of Egyptian society—young and old, rich and poor, educated and not—holds views far more antagonistic than Mubarak has reflected. “There has been a disparity between the Mubarak government and where the Egyptian people are for some time,” said Edward Walker, who was U.S. ambassador to Egypt under President Clinton. “We’ve gotten a lot better hearing from Mubarak than we’ve ever got from the Egyptian people.”
That doesn’t mean that the United States should seek to prolong Mubarak’s crumbling rule. And it doesn’t mean that Islamic radicals would control a post-Mubarak Egypt. But it does mean that an Egyptian government reflecting popular will would create new tensions with the U.S. and Israel that could destabilize relations if both sides are not careful. “In the short term, you could have erratic Egyptian policy and a more populist Egyptian policy, all of which is problematic in terms of anti-American and anti-Israeli attitudes,” says former CIA analyst Kenneth Pollack, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
For three decades, Mubarak has maintained a steadfast alliance with the United States (lubricated by about $1.5 billion in annual aid) and presided over a cold-but-durable peace with Israel. Yet, Egyptian public opinion is overwhelmingly hostile toward both countries. In Pew’s 2010 global survey, just 17 percent of Egyptians expressed a favorable view of the United States; that tied with Pakistan and Turkey for the lowest rating the U.S. received in any of the 21 countries tested. Nearly three-fourths of Egyptians said they opposed U.S. antiterrorism efforts, and four-fifths wanted the U.S. to withdraw from Afghanistan.
Egyptian attitudes toward Israel are even chillier, despite the landmark 1979 peace treaty. In a 2007 Pew survey, a stunning 80 percent of Egyptians said that the needs of the Palestinian people could never be met as long as Israel exists; just 18 percent said that the two societies could coexist fairly. That was far more pessimistic than the results in Turkey and Lebanon—and essentially no different than the attitude among the Palestinians themselves. “Of all the countries in the Middle East,” Walker says, “the population of Egypt is the most hostile to Israel.”
No democratically elected Egyptian government could entirely ignore such broadly held attitudes. But it’s less certain how those views would translate into policy. Most experts believe that a post-Mubarak government would not renounce the Israeli peace treaty (and the vast American foreign assistance linked to it). “It’s not in Egypt’s political, economic, or security interest to do so,” says Aaron David Miller, an analyst at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars who advised six secretaries of State on the Mideast. Nor is Egypt’s influential military spoiling for another round with Israel.
A successor government might, however, confront Israel by opening Egypt’s border with Gaza; even Mohamed ElBaradei, the former international arms inspector seen as a moderate opposition leader, told the German magazine Der Spiegel that he considers Gaza “the world’s largest prison” and would take that step. As ElBaradei’s charged language suggests, Egypt’s next leader is also likely to publicly criticize the U.S. and Israel far more than Mubarak did, and to side with them in international disputes less.
The polling conducted in Egypt offers some reassurance about the worst-case scenario: the nation falling into the hands of a radical Islamist government (at least through a democratic election). Fundamentalist religious views dominate in Egypt: In one Pew survey, about four-fifths of Egyptians said they supported both stoning for adultery and the death penalty for Muslims who renounce the faith. But only about one-fifth express support for Osama bin Laden or agree that suicide bombing is justified. That’s not the foundation for a majority coalition.
Given all these attitudes, Pollack says that over time, “a stable Egyptian democracy” would likely conclude that “its interests are best served by peace with Israel, being part of the global economy … and maintaining a good relationship with the United States.” But it’s also possible that a post-Mubarak government could rhetorically lash out at the U.S. or Israel in ways that prompt American lawmakers to withhold foreign aid—and send the two sides careening toward estrangement. “We can very quickly dissipate whatever chance we have for a reasonable relationship with the new government,” Walker says. As this week’s violence demonstrated, getting to a new Egyptian government won’t be painless. Neither will be living with it.
This article appears in the February 5, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.