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Egypt's Conflicting Views of Democracy and Religion

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Last year, the Pew Research Center Global Attitudes Project conducted a survey of opinion in several Muslim countries. The subject was the proper role of Islam in politics and society. One of the countries surveyed was Egypt, and among other discoveries, the Pew researchers found that 84 percent of Egyptians favor the death penalty for people who leave the Muslim religion.

In another survey, Pew found that 90 percent of Egyptians say they believe in freedom of religion. Pew also found that a majority of Egyptians think democracy, with protections of free speech and assembly, is "preferable to any other kind of government."

How can those attitudes fit together in a democratic post-Mubarak Egypt? It's no wonder so many people can't figure out what is next.

The Pew survey found wide streams of opinion in Egypt that seem at the very least inhospitable to democracy. When asked which side they would take in a struggle between "groups who want to modernize the country (and) Islamic fundamentalists," 59 percent of Egyptians picked the fundamentalists, while 27 percent picked the modernizers. In a country in which the army will likely play a deciding role in selecting the next political leadership, just 32 percent believe in civilian control of the military. And a majority, 54 percent, supports making segregation of men and women in the workplace the law throughout Egypt.

There's more. When asked whether suicide bombing can ever be justified, 54 percent said yes (although most believe such occasions are "rare"). Eighty-two percent supported stoning for those who commit adultery.

And yet at the same time, says Richard Wike, associate director of Pew's Global Attitudes Project, "we found support for some specific features of democracy -- free media, civil liberties, an independent judiciary." Indeed, 80 percent of Egyptians place a high value on free speech, 88 percent on an impartial judiciary and 75 percent on "media free from government censorship." What accounts for the coexistence of attitudes that to the American mind cannot coexist? "I'm not entirely certain what explains it," Wike says.

Analysts with a hopeful view of events in Egypt see a society that, if Hosni Mubarak departs the scene, will lean toward modernity. "There has always been a modernist current in Egypt, and it has always battled against the religious alternative," says Fouad Ajami, director of the Middle East Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University. "The deciding vote in that fight between the modernists and the religious types was always cast by the state, and if I look at the next phase in Egypt, my feeling is that the army, which is an extension and expression of the middle class, will check the Muslim Brotherhood."

Still, even Ajami can't predict how that will work out. When asked what freedom of religion would mean in practice in a new Egypt, he replies, "The honest answer is, as they say in Arabic, only God knows what is next." Whatever comes next, it will likely have an anti-American flavor. The Pew 2010 report found that 82 percent of Egyptians hold an unfavorable view of the United States. That's higher than in Pakistan, higher than in Jordan, higher than in 18 other nations Pew surveyed. And it is higher than the 72 percent of Egyptians who have an unfavorable view of al-Qaida.

Egyptian opinion of the United States improved briefly in 2009, when Barack Obama became president, but it fell significantly in 2010. Muslim opinion of Obama, who made outreach to Muslims a top priority and traveled to Cairo in June 2009 to address the Islamic world, has also dropped.

On the other hand, as the al-Qaida statistic shows, Egyptians aren't siding with terrorist groups, either. They don't like Osama bin Laden. Seventy percent say they are at least somewhat concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism around the world. They don't like Hezbollah and are divided on Hamas.

Put it all together, and it's a confusing picture for the nonexpert and, truth be told, for the expert, too. We might be about to see a grand democratic experiment in a country in which large numbers of people hold at least some views that Westerners find utterly inconsistent with democracy. Such experiments have been rough rides in the past. As they say in Arabic -- and in English, too -- only God knows what is next.

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