By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Most Americans believe democratic reforms in the Middle East would be positive for the United States but are divided over whether unrest sweeping the region will lead to greater democracy, according to a survey released on Monday.
The poll, by researchers at the University of Maryland, found that most Americans believe U.S.-Muslim relations are among the top five issues facing the United States. They also would favor greater democracy even if it meant a country would be more likely to oppose U.S. policies.
"While some observers are worried about the potential effects of greater democratization for U.S. interests in the Middle East, most Americans are cheering the move toward more democracy, even if this might pose some challenges for the U.S.," said Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland.
The survey follows three months of unrest in the Middle East that has swept the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia from power, sparked a violent revolt in Libya and led to protests demanding reform from Syria and Jordan to Yemen and Bahrain.
Sixty-five percent of those surveyed said a move toward democracy in the Middle East would be positive for the United States in the short run, while nearly a third thought it would be negative.
In the longer run, 76 percent thought greater democracy in the Middle East would be positive for the United States, while only 19 percent thought it would be negative.
Fifty-seven percent supported greater democracy even if it meant greater resistance to the United States and 40 percent were opposed.
While expressing support for greater democracy in the Arab world, participants were divided over whether the unrest would ultimately lead to democratic reform.
Fifty-one percent said they thought it was likely the upheaval would lead to more democracy but 47 percent thought it was not likely to bring democratic change.
A large minority -- 39 percent -- said watching the unrest in the Middle East had made them more sympathetic to the Arab people, while 54 percent reported no change.
"There is evidence that the Arab uprisings have contributed to improving views of Arab countries and quite positive views of the Arab people, especially Egyptians," said Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Chair at the University of Maryland, who conducted the study with Kull.
The survey found 70 percent had a favorable view of Egyptians, 57 percent had a favorable view of Saudi Arabians and 56 percent had a favorable view of Arab people in general.
Despite a more favorable view of Arab people, the survey found 59 percent of Americans believe Arab culture produces more violent extremists than other cultures, while 35 percent said the level was about the same as in other cultures.
The survey of 805 people was carried out April 1-5 and has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
It was released before this week's Eighth Annual U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Washington, which aims to promote engagement between the United States and Muslim communities around the world.
(Editing by John O'Callaghan and Eric Beech)