By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A majority of Americans believe the United States should be cautious about backing democracy in the Middle East because elections could lead to anti-U.S. Islamist governments, a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Wednesday said.
As an uprising to end Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule filled the streets of Cairo for a third week, the poll found most Americans are wary of efforts to spread democracy in the region.
A solid majority, 58 percent, backed a cautious approach because democracy could result in the election of Islamist governments that do not back U.S. interests. About one-third, 32 percent, said the United States should always support democracy in the Middle East, regardless of the risks.
"It shows Americans prioritize national security over the value of a democratically elected government, if they think that could compromise U.S. supremacy or security," Ipsos pollster Julia Clark said.
"This suggests a pretty nuanced view of the situation in Egypt and the possible consequences," she said.
The findings underscore the dilemma facing U.S. President Barack Obama as he searches for a response to the protests in Egypt, a longtime U.S. ally that was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel.
Mubarak has said he will not seek re-election in September but has refused to resign. Washington has thrown its support behind a transition effort launched by Mubarak's hand-picked vice president, Omar Suleiman, urging all sides to allow time for an "orderly transition" to a new political order.
U.S. officials are concerned more instability could give rise to an Islamist government in the world's largest Arab country, which controls the Suez Canal and the Suez-Mediterranean oil pipeline, both important energy conduits for the West.
They also worry about the impact of the unrest on other Arab allies and on Israel, where officials fear a successor government in Egypt may follow a radical Islamist line.
The United States has been cool to participation in a new government by the banned Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most influential Islamist group and an ally of the Palestinian Hamas movement, which both the United States and the European Union regard as a terrorist organization.
The White House has expressed concern about the Brotherhood's "anti-American rhetoric" but stopped short of saying the United States would be against it taking a role in any future Egyptian government.
The poll found Republicans were more likely than Democrats, by 63 percent to 55 percent, to believe the United States should be cautious about supporting democracy in the Middle East.
The unrest and daily scenes of protest in Cairo's Tahrir Square have drawn high interest in the United States. The poll found 76 percent "very" or "somewhat" interested, while just 23 percent said they were not very or not at all interested.
"That is very high interest for a global issue," Clark said. "The non-stop coverage is a factor."
Clark said Americans saw parallels with the development of democracy in the United States, but while other opinion polls have found pluralities of Americans back the uprising in Egypt she said there were clearly limits to that support.
"Yes, we're interested in these issues, yes we think it's important that people speak out and attempt to control their own destiny," she said. "But when we look a little more closely we see this caveat, where Americans support it only as long as it does not impact negatively on Americans."
The poll also found Americans evenly split on whether U.S. foreign policy should remain focused on the Middle East in light of new emerging powers like China and India.
The poll of 1,112 adults, including 844 registered voters, was taken Friday through Monday and had a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points. Interviews were conducted on both land lines and cell phones, in either English or Spanish.
(Editing by Doina Chiacu)