Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Courtesy Reuters A protester opposing President Mohamed Morsi holds an Egyptian flag, 2013.

The Truth About the Arab Street

Do Friendlier Policies Mean Friendlier Ties?

Amaney Jamal is a careful scholar, and her book has advanced the discussion about the drivers of Arab views of the United States in important ways. But her response to my review of it misses my major critiques and raises new questions about how to interpret her evidence.

Jamal insists that her data prove the existence of pro-American views among Arab publics before the Arab Spring and that such attitudes were more frequent among the aspirational middle class, which received economic benefits from the U.S.-backed status quo. This is true, as far as it goes, but is also unsurprising. No opinion surveys in the years before the Arab Spring, even in the darkest days of the George W. Bush administration, showed 100 percent hostility toward the United States. It stands to reason that the strongest bastions of pro-American attitudes would overlap with the better-off sectors of society.

But the implications of that finding are not what Jamal seems to believe. Those middle-class constituencies approved of the United States in spite of all the unpopular policies that Jamal would like to see changed. In fact, the patterns that she uncovered suggest that as long as the relationship makes economic sense for them, the Arab “haves” will continue to support the United States regardless of what it does elsewhere. Similarly, the Obama administration’s decision to support democratic change in some Arab countries, however tepidly, actually seems to have hurt the United States’ image with those previously supportive groups. What is more, Barack Obama’s policy does not seem to have won any new support among those Arabs who were previously hostile to the United States. Indeed, Jamal’s detailed, empirically driven analysis makes all the more glaring the complete absence of hard evidence that any U.S. policy shifts in the direction of Arab popular preferences have changed Arab views of the United States for the better.

Jamal contends that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s avoidance of extreme anti-Americanism after its election offers just such proof. But that is a slender reed. Jamal provides no evidence that views within Islamist ranks have changed, nor that the Brotherhood’s behavior is driven by concern that anti-American policies might alienate large segments of Egyptian society. The Brotherhood has indeed sought to maintain good relations with Washington, but a more plausible explanation is that it has done so for good old-fashioned realist reasons. The Brotherhood has been equally solicitous of Israel, after all, continuing to enforce the blockade of Gaza despite its ideological sympathy with Hamas.

The Arab uprisings have given popular voices more political weight than ever, and fierce controversies over the revolutions, Islamism, and Syria have radically reshaped long-standing political worldviews. I happen to agree with Jamal that if Washington hopes to more effectively engage with the Arab world, then it should take into account Arab popular opinions on a wide range of issues, including drones, democracy, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But unfortunately, nothing in her book provides support for this recommendation. Indeed, her response to my review suggests that Jamal needs to engage much more frankly with the potentially discordant implications of her own analysis and evidence.

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