American Perceptions of US Embassy Attacks

Oct 16, 2012

            Following the massive Arab and Muslim demonstrations and attacks on American embassies in Libya and Egypt in reaction to an anti-Muslim video, the Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and the Program on International Policy Attitudes conducted an public opinion poll to study how the American public reacted to these events. A majority of Americans said the attacks were supported by extremist minorities but also thought the Egyptian and Libyan governments did not protect American diplomats and their staff. About three in ten Americans wanted to completely cut aid to Egypt and four in ten wanted to reduce aid. The study was headed by Shibley Telhami and Steven Kull and fielded by Knowledge Networks, September 27-October 2. Below are some of the key findings:

Perceptions of Attacks on US Embassies in Libya and Egypt: Key Findings

The poll of 737 Americans has a margin of error of +/-­‐4.6% (including design effect) and was fielded September 27- October 2, 2012 by Knowledge Networks.

•     Majorities of Americans polled say the attacks in Egypt (63%) and in Libya (61%) were supported only by extremist minorities—not by majorities of the population.

•     Yet, majorities also expressed the view that the Egyptian (53%) and Libyan (63%) governments didn’t try to protect American diplomats and their staff.  A plurality of Americans say that both the Libyan and Egyptian governments criticized the attacks (47%), while 42% said they did not.

•     Perceptions of Libya are strikingly unfavorable (75%) with only 19% expressing favorable views. Views of Egypt have not changed much since August 2011, with 39% (compared with 40% in August 2011) expressing favorable views and 54% (compared with 51% in August 2011). Still, this contrasts with the American public’s perceptions of Egypt early after the revolution, in April 2011, when 60% expressed favorable views of Egypt. 

Impact of Perceptions of Arabs and Muslims

•     Perceptions of the “Arab people” and the “Muslim people” divided, although they have turned slightly less favorable than a year earlier: 49% expressed favorable views of Arabs and 47% unfavorable views; views of Muslims were evenly divided at 48%.

•     A majority (51%) continues to think that the tensions between Islam and the West are more about conflicts of power and interest than of differences of religion and culture (43%). It is noteworthy, however, that 56% of Republicans, compared with 36% of Democrats and 38% of Independents attribute the tensions to differences of religion and culture.

•     Perceptions of the popular uprisings in the Arab world have increasingly shifted away from a view that the uprisings are about ordinary people seeking freedom and democracy to a perception that they are more about Islamist groups seeking power.

•     There has been little change in the public’s ranking of the US relationship with Muslims and Muslim-­‐majority countries among US interests since the August 2011 poll, and a slight increase in the perceived importance of the Arab-­‐Israeli  conflict. Two thirds continue to express the view that both issues are among the “top five issues.”

 Aid to Egypt

•     Majorities find the arguments for continued foreign aid to Egypt to be less convincing, while the arguments against foreign aid are more convincing. While there are significant differences among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, the general trend on this issue holds for all.

•     Still, only 29% (41% of Republicans, 36% of Independents, and 15% of Democrats) want to see aid stopped completely, while 42% want it to decrease, and 25% want it kept at the same level.

    Attitudes toward Democracy and American Diplomacy

•     The events of the past few weeks do not appear to have impacted the public’s support for democracy in the Middle East, with a 50% plurality supporting, and 42% opposing, a country becoming democratic even if it becomes “more likely to oppose US policies.” This result is roughly the same as it was in August 2011.

•     In light of the recent events in the Middle East, a plurality of Americans (46%) say that the United States should maintain its current level of diplomacy in the region, 34% say the US should decrease its diplomatic involvement, and 14% say diplomatic involvement should be increased.

  Policy Toward Syria

•     Two thirds of those polled oppose sending arms and supplies to anti-­‐government groups in Syria and bombing Syrian air defense. 77% oppose sending troops into Syria.

•     60% support the US, jointly with its allies, increasing economic and diplomatic sanctions on Syria, and 59% support enforcing a no-­‐fly zone over Syria.

The full report can be found here and the C-Span-aired discussion of the results can be viewed here.


Sign up for newsletter here.

In the News

Our Articles

For more articles, click here.


The Islamists Are Coming is the first book to survey the rise of Islamist groups in the wake of the Arab Spring.  Often lumped together, the more than 50 Islamist parties with millions of followers now constitute a whole new spectrum—separate from either militants or secular parties.  They will shape the new order in the world’s most volatile region more than any other political bloc. Yet they have diverse goals and different constituencies. Sometimes they are even rivals.

The Islamists Are Coming

Our Partner