As this week marked the one-year anniversary of the Syrian uprising, prominent Middle East expert James Zogby tells Newsmax.TV that popularity for that country’s ruler has plunged to a new all-time low among fellow Arabs.
“Today in most of the Arab countries where we polled, his numbers are at rock bottom and people support the opposition overwhelmingly and do not support him,” declared Zogby, founder and president of the Arab-American Institute (AAI) Foundation. “I think I’ve never seen a situation quite like this where somebody plummeted as quickly as he did.”
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It was only five or six years ago that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had one of the highest approval ratings in the Middle East, according to Zogby, whose polling data also shows that U.S. favorability has dropped precipitously under President Barack Obama’s watch as compared to the final year of President George W. Bush’s time in office.
Prior to the uprising, al-Assad had been viewed as someone who stood up to the United States, while pushing for internal reform in his own country.
“He was the golden boy — partly because people were angry at America,” said Zogby, who is the author of “Arab Voices.” “I don’t think he’ll ever win it back. He hurts himself more and his people more almost every day. Somebody called it once a country committing suicide. I think that’s what it is. It’s tragic. It’s just a horrific mess.”
Those were among the findings of a decade-worth of polling from 11 countries by the Arab American Institute in what the organization claims is the most detailed examination of Arab public opinion ever compiled.
Organized to serve as a comprehensive look at evolving attitudes on a range of regional and international issues, the web-accessible data features surveys from 2002 to 2012, and includes questions on Arab attitudes toward America, President Obama, the peace process, and the Iraq war, among others.
While the Arab Spring has already brought leadership changes in Egypt and Libya — and many would argue further instability to the region — Zogby believes that the changes are in the best interest of those countries over the long term.
“Look at our own democracy. The first several decades after the American Revolution were a mess here in terms of internal strife, in terms of wars with other countries,” he explained. “It took us a while to settle down and we still weren’t perfect. We had a Civil War within two generations after we declared independence. And African-Americans, women, common people, didn’t get the right to vote guaranteed for decades after that.”
Zogby believes that the same will be true of the Middle East. “Democracy is not perfect and it’s a bit messy, but it has the ability to become perfectible. I mean it can get better because you have the mechanisms to do that. The Arab world is going to go through something like that. It won’t be pretty but it will get prettier all the time.”
The U.S. should not be as concerned with helping the Arab world embrace democracy as it should be in helping it find economic stability, according to Zogby.
“The role we ought to be playing is helping them finding ways to mutually reinforce their economic needs and our economic needs,” he said. “What’s good for America right now is that they economically proper. What’s good for them is that we be partners in their prosperity.”
Regardless of what the U.S. does in the region, the Arab people have strong feelings against U.S. support for Israel and will continue to be wary of U.S. motives. Indeed, this issue — above all else — is viewed as an “open wound,” that will keep U.S. popularity low.
“All these other things are important, but as the ultimate measure of whether or not we get it is how we treat that issue,” he said. “We can be celebrating the downfall of a dictator. We can be getting bin Laden. We can be overthrowing Gadhafi and we go to the U.N. and veto a resolution on Palestine. And it is all for naught. All of the deeds are for naught.”
He also believes that Egypt is still the best chance for brokering a lasting peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
“Egypt remains the cornerstone of the Arab world, the hinge, the pivot point of three continents,” he said. “It’s the largest Arab country and the most important Arab country. . . At the end of the day, the Arab world looks to Egypt. And Egypt just played a role in calming down the situation in Gaza.”
He said that while Iran had its Arab Spring, the hardliners only became stronger.
“This is country where there are hardliners, and more hardliners, and most hardliners. The reformers are actually a minority and I think Arabs know that,” Zogby observed. “And so what you have is a situation where if America’s ratings are really poor in the Arab world, so too are Iran’s. That is actually a huge change.”
In contrast, Iran was viewed favorably by Arabs as recently as 2006. “It’s Iran’s behavior that has gotten the best of it — its behavior in Iraq. Its behavior in the Gulf. Its behavior in Lebanon has irritated people and caused real concern,” Zogby said. “It used to be that just Arab governments were upset with Iran, but now Arab people are upset with Iran.”
Even so, Zogby insists it would be a mistake for Israel or the United States to attack Iran. “It would unify the people of Iran and it would unify the rest of the region against America or against Israel,” he said, noting that sanctions appear to be working.
“I think that Iran is doing itself in by its own devices. Sanctions are working. Its meddlesome behavior is irritating people,” he said. “It’s best to leave it alone and not push this toward any kind of military confrontation. It would be a bad thing.”
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