I was not surprised, during a visit to Egypt for a few days, to read the results of the latest BBC World Service global poll showing that in 22 out of 23 countries surveyed most people feel the U.S.-led "global war on terror" has not weakened Al Qaeda. On average, the poll showed, only 22 percent of respondents feel that Al Qaeda has been weakened, while three in five believe that the war on terror has had no effect (29 percent) or made Al Qaeda stronger (30 percent).
The poll surveyed 23,937 adults in 23 countries in July-September, and was conducted by pollsters GlobeScan with the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland.
In most of the countries surveyed, people had a negative view of Al Qaeda, except for two countries that are also very close allies of the United States: Egypt and Pakistan. In these two, those who have mixed or positive feelings toward Al Qaeda (Egypt 40 percent mixed and 20 percent positive; Pakistan 22 percent mixed and 19 percent positive) are nearly double those who view the group negatively (Egypt 35 percent; Pakistan 19 percent).
Two aspects of this are important and should get the attention of whoever becomes the next U.S. president. First, Egypt and Pakistan have been central suppliers of leaders, ideologists, foot soldiers and supporters for Al Qaeda and other terror groups in the past 20 years. Second, public sympathy for Al Qaeda and other movements like it persists in both countries, alongside enormous U.S. financial and military aid to their governments.
Something is very wrong if the U.S. and allies are spending hundreds of billions of dollars on a global war, but the main terror group targeted continues to operate, spawning allies, and in most parts of the world is seen either to be holding its own against the U.S. or is maintaining public support.
The poll has other troubling findings:
On average across all 23 countries, 10 percent think Al Qaeda is winning, 22 percent think the U.S. is winning, and 47 percent think neither side is winning.
In the U.S., just 34 percent believe Al Qaeda has been weakened. Fifty-nine percent believe the "war on terror" has either had no effect or has made Al Qaeda stronger, and 56 percent believe neither side is winning the conflict.
On average 61 percent of respondents had negative feelings about Al Qaeda, with just 8 percent positive and 18 percent mixed views.
Publics in some of the U.S.'s closest allies had the largest numbers perceiving that the war on terror has strengthened Al Qaeda, including France (48 percent), Mexico (48 percent), Italy (43 percent), Australia (41 percent) and the U.K. (40 percent).
What could explain the astounding reality that Al Qaeda (and other extremist movements like the Taliban) seem to be most firmly anchored in countries that are among the world's top recipients of U.S. economic aid?
Several possibilities come to mind:
Chromosomes. Perhaps Egyptians and Pakistanis are genetically predisposed to irrational and violent behavior. A graduate student in Alaska who is not fully occupied with monitoring Russia should probably get on this right away and launch a serious study.
Domestic politics. Perhaps Egyptians and Pakistanis have been so demeaned by their own autocratic political systems that some of them have embraced extremist views as a cathartic antidote to their degradation.
Resentment against the U.S. Perhaps many people think Al Qaeda is a bunch of despicable thugs, but they turn a blind eye to it because their daily lives are impacted more adversely by the destructive consequences of U.S. policies.
Domestic and foreign policy convergence. Perhaps many Egyptians and Pakistanis feel that U.S. support for their governments promotes dehumanizing conditions. When the U.S. is seen as fighting a specific foe, that foe - regardless of its own record - becomes a little less menacing in view of the enormity of people's disdain for the policies of Washington and their own governments.
Pakistan and Egypt are two stressed and distorted societies, with great human suffering, worsening socio-economic disparities, flawed governance systems, enormous U.S. support, and a legacy of spawning, supporting or acquiescing to Qaeda-like extremism. How those elements combine and relate to each other would seem worthy of deeper analysis than they seem to have enjoyed to date - from Alaska and Washington alike.
Rami G. Khouri is editor-at-large of The Daily Star and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. Distributed by Agence Global.