How much grassroots support does the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) enjoy in key “coalition” countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Lebanon? Until today, one could only guess at the answer. Recent news reports about the arrests of ISIS adherents in all three of these countries add urgency to the question.
Now, however, a trio of new polls — the first ones of their kind — provides the hard data on which to make this judgment. The polls were conducted in September by a leading commercial survey firm in the Middle East, using face-to-face interviews by experienced local professionals. The sample was a random, geographic probability national sample of 1,000 respondents (nationals only, excluding expatriates or refugees) in each country, yielding a statistical margin of error of approximately 3 percent.
The most striking as well as encouraging finding is that ISIS (also known as Islamic State, or IS) has almost no popular support in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Lebanon — even among Sunnis. Among Egyptians, a mere 3 percent express a favorable opinion of ISIS. In Saudi Arabia, the figure is slightly higher: 5 percent rate ISIS positively. In Lebanon, not a single Christian, Shiite, or Druze respondent viewed ISIS favorably; and even among Lebanon’s Sunnis, that figure is almost equally low at 1 percent.
Nevertheless, there is a real difference between almost no support and no support at all. Since 3 percent of adult Egyptians say they approve of ISIS, that is nearly 1.5 million people. For Saudis, the 5 percent of adult nationals who support ISIS means over half a million people. And even in tiny Lebanon, 1 percent of adult Sunnis equals a few thousand ISIS sympathizers. In any of these places, this is enough to harbor at least a few cells of serious troublemakers.
Another major caveat is that the nearly uniform opposition to ISIS does not extend to other political Islamist organizations. In Egypt, for example, a surprisingly high proportion — one-third of the total population — voices a positive attitude toward Hamas…