The estimated one million Egyptians who have taken to the streets of their country in the last week have a deep belief in democracy and serious concerns about Islamic extremism both in their own country and in other nations with a substantial Muslim population.
And although many also believe in Islamic or Shariah law — cutting off the hands of a thief, stoning an adulterer, death for one who leaves the Muslim religion — 61 percent say there is no struggle between those who want to modernize their country and Islamic fundamentalists.
Those poll results, conducted last April and May by the Pew Research Center, are not inconsistent, according to Dina Guirguis, a fellow at Project Fikra at the Washington Institute for Public Policy.
“Most Egyptians — Muslims and Christians alike — are religious people, and they view the role of religion in government as natural,” she explained. “But would they like to live under that? No, they don’t. I don’t believe the majority of Egyptians would want to live under a theocracy or a government like that of Saudi Arabia.”
Guirguis, who was born in Egypt and was the founding executive director of Voices for a Democratic Egypt, which is dedicated to promoting democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Egypt, said that just as Americans say Judeo-Christian values inform their government, they do not want religion running the United States.
Roughly 90 percent of Egyptians are Muslim.
The Egyptians who took to the streets were a cross-section of the Egyptian public — men, women, children, lawyers, doctors, students and the jobless poor. Guirguis said it was a “largely secular-driven revolution; it was an opportunity for the Egyptians to change their country.”
But Barry Rubin, a professor at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel and director of the center’s Global Research in International Affairs Center, said he was in touch with Egyptians who told him “people were increasingly saying it was a revolution against Israel and America.”
“If this turns out like Tunisia, it will not be so bad,” Rubin added. “But this is the first crisis Obama’s foreign policy team is facing, and it is messing it up badly.”
He was referring to suggestions from the White House that it would under certain conditions work with the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s oldest and largest Islamic organization that has been an officially banned but tolerated opposition group. If it came to power, it has said it would end the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty that was signed in 1979.
“We are living through what may turn out to be the biggest disaster for the Middle East and the United States in the history of the region, and the U.S. is facilitating it,” Rubin said.
But Guirguis said she sees none of that in what she has seen on the streets of Egypt.
“It is not framed in religious terms,” she insisted. “What we are seeing is a broad representation of Egyptian society, including Muslims and Christians. Religious slogans were rejected by the crowd, because this is not the kind of change that most Egyptians want. The slogans are almost exclusively against the Mubarak regime as a result of his direct role in regression on the economic and political front.”
“There have been very few anti-American and anti-Israel slogans,” Guirguis added. “If anything, there has been frustration from a recognition that the Mubarak regime was bolstered by the U.S. — that it was complicit in maintaining him so long against his people. But there is no demonizing of the U.S. or Israel.”
She pointed out that the body that will negotiate in the creation of a new government will consist of 100 seats that will be a “people’s assembly” representing “largely secular, liberal movements.”
“The Muslim Brotherhood will have only 15 of the 100 seats, which acknowledges that they are a reality on the ground but by no means do they represent a majority,” Guirguis said. “The Egyptian people want jobs and to live in dignity and freedom, and they don’t believe that is best delivered by an Islamist government.”
Elie Podeh, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an expert on Egypt, said he too has found that the Egyptians who took to the streets were mainly secular — “not at all religious” — although some members of the Muslim Brotherhood participated and unemployed students led the protests.
“They have set up a committee of 10 people that represents different organizations,” he said. “You can’t really portray them as one unified force or say they belong to a certain group.”
Asked about those who call for democracy and those who speak of Islam, Podeh said there is not necessarily a contradiction between them.
“Indonesia and Turkey are both democracies,” he pointed out. “But it is also possible to establish something that is highly undemocratic. Look at Iran and Hamas in Gaza. … There are some ignorant people who know very little about democracy, and for them it is only a slogan. For them, democracy means change.
“There is still a high percentage of illiteracy in Egypt — maybe 20 or 30 percent, and in rural areas it might be higher,” Podeh continued. “And there is a high rate of unemployment. Although officially it is 10 percent, in reality it might be 20 percent or more. The revolution in Tunisia precipitated these events, but there have been social and economic issues that have bugged them for many years and there is hope that a new regime will solve their problems.”
Although the polls offer a glimpse of Egyptians’ attitudes towards Islam and government, they can be deceptive. For instance, one survey appears to show increasingly positive sentiment towards the United States since President Barack Obama moved into the White House.
That survey, the BBC World Service annual survey of 28 countries, found that 45 percent of Egyptians had a “mostly positive” view of the U.S. in 2010, compared with just 11 percent who held that view in 2007. But that survey represented those in selected rural areas — only 22 percent of the adult population.
Another Pew Research Center survey that sampled 98 percent of the population found that the U.S. popularity rating had actually fallen to just 17 percent from 30 percent in 2006. It found that 82 percent of Egyptians now rate the U.S. negatively, including 48 percent who give it a “very unfavorable” rating.
And the Huffington Post reported that the Pew poll found that the U.S. had a favorable rating that was slightly lower among urban Egyptians last year (16 percent) than among those in rural areas (19 percent).
But as the Huffington Post pointed out, the Pew results do show that Egyptians had greater confidence in Obama than they did in President George W. Bush “to do the right thing regarding world affairs” — jumping from just 11 percent to 42 percent during Obama’s first year in office. The number dropped to 33 percent last year.
At the same time, the percentage of Egyptians expressing little or no confidence in Obama shot up from 47 percent to 59 percent during his first year in office.