A Softening Across the Border

A poll shows that fewer young Egyptians seek to emigrate to the U.S., few agree on a national hero, and the dream of pushing Israel into the sea is disappearing.

A small group of Egyptians aged 20 and over recently received a modest platform on which to air their views on a variety of subjects. For a change, this does not refer to an Internet site or blogs, or even to cellphone networks, which in recent years have become an alternative to the mail in Egypt. The newspaper Roz Al-Yusuf, which is close to the government, published a survey conducted among 400 young men and women, including students, the unemployed, civil servants and privately employed people.

The survey featured 50 questions intended to reflect the views of the young generation, their ambitions and their perceptions of Egypt. "We wanted to read the palm of the people," one of the paper's editors said. "To listen to the young generation after years of silencing them."

The editors, however, explained that the survey suffers from several methodological and technical problems, such as the fact that 75 respondents forgot to indicate their gender. But the poll certainly "reflects the things that we must understand" about the perceptions of the young generation.

The questions were divided into groups of topics such as the respondents' dreams, personal and national ambitions, their main concerns, their attitude to Israel and the United States, what books they read, if they use information technology and how frequently, whom they admire and whom they consider a role model.

The polltakers - according to the newspaper's editors - were stunned by the answers to "What country do you dream of emigrating to?" Around 25 percent said they have no desire to emigrate. Seventy-five percent admitted they would like to leave their homeland. The breakdown of countries the respondents might emigrate to is no less surprising. Only 8 percent said their dream was to emigrate to the United States.

"If we would have asked the young generation of the 1970s what country is their preferred destination to emigrate to, almost all would have answered, 'America'," the paper wrote. Today, Europe, especially Germany and Italy, and to a certain extent, Australia, have taken the place of the U.S. Is this related to the U.S.'s positions and its political status in the Middle East? It is hard to answer that. It seems the reason for the decline in the U.S.'s allure is the difficulties it imposes on Arabs and Muslims seeking to emigrate there. The respondents' answers are more a function of the chance of getting into the desired country than of the intensity of the dream itself.

The survey's authors take some consolation from the fact that 14 percent of the respondents want to emigrate to an Arab country, mainly the Gulf States. In other words, the young people are not interested in totally disconnecting from Arab and Muslim culture, and only want to try to improve their quality of life, earn money and return home.

Where is Mubarak?

Another surprising figure relates to the young people's identification with national heroes or role models. Fifteen percent said they do not have a national hero, and 12 percent said the average Egyptian citizen is their true hero. Only 5.7 percent referred to the late Anwar Sadat as a national hero. His predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser, is only slightly more popular, with 7 percent. The current president, Hosni Mubarak, was not even mentioned.

But political figures and past heroes are not the only ones absent. Writers and intellectuals are also not part of the young people's world. One-quarter of the respondents reported that they do not read books at all. One-quarter read religious books and one-quarter read books on politics. Ten percent said that Naguib Mahfouz is their favorite writer, and only 2 percent cited the names of classic Egyptian authors such as Yusuf Edris or Ihsan Abd al-Qudus. The polltakers noted that it was unclear whether the answers here were based on books read by the respondents or the reputation the author acquired.

"Basically, most of the information the young people in Egypt get comes from other sources, not from reading," said the polltakers. Their primary source of information is television, as only 12 percent of the young people surf the Internet or use a computer or other advanced technology.

Of particular interest is the respondents' views on the political situation in Egypt and its surroundings. When asked "what do you dream of happening in your country, Egypt, that has yet to be realized?" - 20 percent answered they dream of democracy, 5 percent said finding a job, and around 9 percent said progress and prosperity. Forty percent are troubled by the constitutional amendments approved by parliament. What parts of these amendments interests them? What worries them? Do they have an opinion on these amendments? It is hard to understand from the answers, and it is also hard to know how the question was phrased, especially given that the polltakers also stressed that the young people lack political consciousness.

As opposed to the high place of constitutional amendments, only 12 percent answered that the Palestinian problem interests them, only 6 percent are interested in what is happening in Iraq, and a similar percentage said the Iranian threat concerns them. Sixteen percent said they were focused on Egypt's domestic problems.

The meaning of hostility

It seems the subject that most surprised the polltakers - until they bothered to devote a special article to it in an extra edition of the paper - relates to attitudes to Israel and the U.S. "The era of slogans calling for pushing Israel into the sea is over. The new generation grew up in a different atmosphere and did not experience the wars. It has a different culture and different opinions" than the previous generations, they write.

At least one key figure reinforces this statement: "Only 25.47 percent of the respondents noted that they think Israel is Egypt's number one enemy. If we had asked a similar question 10 years ago, the result would have been a lot higher," and even more so 30 years ago, the polltakers write. In this figure they see one of the most significant differences between the previous generation and the new generation in Egypt. To analyze attitudes to Israel in greater depth, the polltakers asked additional questions. In the secondary analysis, the polltakers distinguished between all the respondents and students at the American University in Cairo. The latter not only represent a very high socioeconomic group but are likely to represent relatively liberal views linked to American and Western academic literature.

These views are reflected in the figures. For example, while 93 percent of the respondents said they think whoever travels to Israel is a traitor or a spy, 80 percent of the American University students feel there is nothing wrong with traveling to Israel and everyone has the right to travel where they want. Fifty-five percent feel there will not be another Israeli-Egyptian war because of the peace treaty "and also Israel has an interest in keeping the peace, and that is also the wise policy of President Mubarak." But 40 percent of the American University students predict there will be another war because Israel is "a country that cannot be satisfied." In this context, it is interesting to note the response of 70 percent of the female university students, who feel there will not be another war "because Egypt is too smart to sacrifice its sons and its capital in a war."

Regarding continuing ties with Israel, the breakdown between American University students and the others is similar. About half the university students oppose contacts with Israel or want to maintain the current relationship without expanding the normalization. On the other hand, 70 percent of the American University students are not satisfied with the nature of the existing relationship with Israel, and 70 percent of the female students are satisfied with the relationship because it prevents "bad things" in Egypt.

Is it possible to draw any uniform conclusions from this survey? The paper's editors still do not have a clear answer. They are continuing a dialogue with the young people and are publishing the contents of these discussions. Israel can be pleased with the substantial change in how it is perceived among the young generation in Egypt, but it should be concerned about the way its policies in the region and especially toward the Palestinians will influence the perceptions of those who will assume key positions in Egypt not too long from now.