Can Washington Win Over the Arab Street?

It's Not Who We Are, It's What We Do

In my book Of Empires and Citizens, I argue that at the height of the period of authoritarian rule in the Middle East, Arab societies were divided between those people who benefited from their leaders’ relationship with the United States, and therefore sought to preserve the dictatorships, and those who did not, and therefore sought democracy. For the pro-U.S. camp, which was mostly comprised of the affluent, the U.S.-backed regimes brought the stability necessary for economic growth. This group feared that democracy, which could bring to power anti-American Islamists, would weigh the economy down. The other camp, meanwhile, saw the United States as the primary underwriter of repression. This dynamic made Middle Eastern autocracies extremely durable: in the Arab world, the middle class, which tends to be the vanguard of democracy elsewhere, was at best ambivalent to rule by the people.

In his review of my book (“The Persistence of Arab Anti-Americanism,” May/June 2013), Marc Lynch implies that recent events in the Arab world have proved me wrong. He correctly notes that Islamist victories in Egypt and Tunisia have not brought the dramatic severing of ties with the United States that I argue some in the region had expected. Therefore, he seems to have concluded, those expectations must never have existed in the first place. Furthermore, they could not have informed the middle classes’ negative perceptions of democracy. Yet the data, painstakingly gathered over a number of years in a number of countries, show otherwise. In my 2007 analysis of polls of Jordanians and Kuwaitis, among those (mostly middle class) who were favorably inclined toward expanding trade and business ties with other countries, over 25 percent had favorable opinions of the United States. Only 12 percent of those who opposed trade ties had good views of the United States.

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