Damned if we do, damned if we don't

Even in moderate Arab states like Egypt, anti-Americanism burns so hot that the U.S. can do no right.


Ferry Biedermann
September 13, 2002 11:01PM (UTC)

The American University in Cairo, a green oasis in this dusty metropolis, is probably the last bastion of pro-American sentiment in Egypt. Only here, in the shade of a palm tree or in the long corridors of the old buildings, can one find Egyptians who still unreservedly defend the U.S.'s war on terrorism or support a possible strike against Iraq. Even in the McDonald's across the road, the moderately well-off professionals who can afford to eat there denounce U.S. policy towards their country and the region over a hamburger and a cup of coke.

"The Americans just want the whole world to do as they say, they don't want to listen to anybody. They say to hell with all Arabs -- if we want to attack Iraq, we will attack Iraq," says Mohammed Fuad, a young computer engineer who is enjoying his lunchtime hamburger together with his fiancée, Njarmeen Othman, an English teacher. Under her headscarf she nods vigorously at her boyfriend's words. "The Americans make so much noise about the people killed in New York and Washington, but people get killed in violence everywhere," says Othman. "They are the same as the Israelis: Palestinians get killed all the time, but when an Israeli dies it's a disaster, as if their lives are worth more than those of other people."

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Sooner or later in every discussion about how Egyptians feel about the U.S., the Israeli-Palestinian conflict comes up. American bias towards Israel is perceived to have grown dramatically after the Sept. 11 attacks: Egyptians cite the Bush administration's almost unqualified support for Israel's hard-line policy toward the Palestinians and its plans to invade Iraq, which many see as being driven by Israeli concerns. Yet the Palestinian issue is by no means the only, or even always the first and the most important thing, that people mention. The Egyptian rancor against the U.S. is deep and has many causes -- some of them understandable, some of them self-contradictory. If the reaction of the Arab street, and the fate of the ruling regimes in America's two key allies in the Middle East, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are key elements in America's decision whether to invade Iraq, the deep anti-Americanism in Egypt cannot be ignored.

One year after the attacks, sympathy for the United States is hard to find in Egypt. Americans are not seen as victims but as aggressors. Throughout Egyptian society a deep-seated feeling prevails that the U.S. has unjustly blamed the Arab and Muslim world for the attacks, which many Egyptians don't think were carried out by Arabs or Muslims at all, and that certainly Egypt, as a loyal ally of the U.S., does not deserve America's hostility. The government and its supporters are offended by the new wind of distrust and unilateralism in the Middle East blowing out of Washington. Senior advisors complain that their access to senior U.S. officials has been curtailed in the post-Sept. 11 climate. On the other hand, critics of the government of President Hosni Mubarak, and democracy- and human-rights activists feel that the Bush administration has given the regime the green light to crack down even harder on its opponents and that civil liberties are being made secondary to Egypt's acquiescence in the "war on terror."

Sept. 11 and the American response to it clearly exacerbated tensions between the two nations. But on closer examination, most of the Egyptian complaints about the U.S. predate the attacks: they involve longstanding antagonisms over culture, religion, economics and power, and the complexities and contradictions of a relationship between allies who came together in a vanished Cold War era and whose goals and interests do not always coincide.

People like Fuad and Othman may still eat their hamburgers at McDonald's, but others wrecked a nearby outlet and a Kentucky Fried Chicken during riots last year. "We think most of the money from this restaurant goes to local people, otherwise we wouldn't eat here," says Fuad. They are not averse to American cultural products such as movies and music, but don't want their values to be affected by these consumer choices -- and fear that if the U.S. has its way, they will be. There exists a strong conviction in Egypt and the wider Arab world that the U.S. is out for world hegemony. "They are using the 11th of September to do what they always wanted to do," says Othman.

Hussein Amin, chairman of the department of mass communication at the AUC, holds rare unreservedly pro-American views. "It is incredible how people don't look at what is best for Egypt but let themselves be influenced by extremist propaganda," says Amin. Intellectuals and moderate forces in the country have for too long ignored the growing anti-American feelings, he says, making it essential that that discussion now be joined. "After the 11th of September many subjects that used to be kind of taboo have come up for discussion. For example, people often ask me why the U.S. is anti-Muslim and I try to explain that that isn't so." Amin, who went to college in the U.S., now hosts a weekly program on Egypt's satellite station, Nile-TV, in which he tries to "bridge the gap" between Americans and Arabs.

Amin seems to be the exception, though. Even among the intellectuals whom he considers still pro-Western, anti-Americanism is flaring up. "The United States hasn't learned anything from the attacks on Washington and New York. U.S. policies under Bush have only become blunter," says Mohammed Salmawi, author, playwright and editor of the weekly French version of the pro-government Al-Ahram newspaper. His curriculum vitae bristles with honorary titles that Western institutions have bestowed on him, but his cultural sympathy does not extend to the "arrogant" Americans, whom he regards as having only themselves to blame for the Sept. 11 attacks. "The lesson that the U.S. should have learned is that it is responsible for a lot of the injustice in the world," he says. Instead, he sees the list of American misdeeds growing: the increased bias toward Israel, the "massacres" in Afghanistan and the threat to attack Iraq, among others.

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The United States is so unpopular right now, says Salmawi, that it's not surprising that even the Egyptian government is starting to distance itself from the Bush administration, particularly where the possibility of an attack on Iraq is concerned. "The United States is looking at every issue in the Middle East through the prism of terrorism now," says Abdel Monem Said, director of the Al Ahram Center for Strategic Studies in Cairo. "This has affected the close strategic relationship that used to exist between the U.S. and Egypt and Saudi Arabia."

Monem Said, who has close ties to the government, has the impression that the U.S. administration is considerably less willing to take Egypt's point of view into serious consideration after Sept. 11 -- despite the fact that Egypt has more than a decade of experience in fighting its own Muslim fundamentalists. Some within the Egyptian government resent U.S. positions, taking an "I told you so" attitude: They are quick to recall that both the U.S. and the Europeans were unwilling to act against Egyptian fundamentalists who had sought asylum abroad. Although some of the people whose extradition had been demanded by the authorities have now been handed over, the Americans do not really want to cooperate with the Arab countries, Monem Said says.

"There are certain problems with the American attitude after Sept. 11. There was no self-evaluation, no saying, 'Well, we were wrong, we need to look at this as a common threat and we have to face this together.' Instead there was finger-pointing -- 'your societies are to blame, your culture is to blame.'" Monem Said warns of the dangers of the U.S. creating an atmosphere in which Arabs and Muslims are seen as the enemy. Many Egyptians and other Arabs firmly believe that America has already accepted this view.

In this suspicious, even paranoid climate, no matter what America does, it only reinforces the belief in the Arab world that Washington is attacking it. The U.S. is facing a classic "damned if you do, damned if you don't" scenario in Egypt and other Arab countries: Siding with the government makes the Americans unpopular with the people: "Why should we like somebody who helps our government oppress us?" says one human rights activist who wants to remain anonymous. But intervening is seen by most people, not only government officials and activists, as pernicious meddling in Egypt's internal affairs.

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On human rights, many Egyptians accuse Washington of being more tolerant toward abuses perpetrated by friendly regimes because of the war on terror. But when the U.S. does take a stand, many of those same people accuse it of using human rights to curry favor with the Arab masses to clear the way for some anti-Arab, anti-Muslim scheme. This is what happened in the recent case of the prominent pro-democracy activist Saed Eddin Ibrahim. Human rights groups were initially appalled when Washington took no action when Ibrahim, who holds a U.S. passport, was convicted to seven years in jail in July for "damaging the image of the country abroad." Ibrahim is a sociology professor at AUC and heads the Center for Democracy and Democratization. He had previously been sentenced to seven years, on charges that included accepting money for his center from foreign sources, but that sentence was overturned and a retrial was ordered after an international outcry. The result remained the same, though.

After the trial, human rights activists condemned the inaction of the U.S. administration, charging the Americans with trying to stay on friendly terms with the regime because of the war against terror. Just a few weeks later, the State Department did announce it was taking steps against Egypt over the case. The administration said that it would not consider new aid to Egypt on top of the approximately $2 billion a year, mostly in military support, that it already gets. Surprisingly, not only the government but also the human rights groups who had called for action criticized the U.S. "This looks too much like the U.S. wants to make the point that it really does care about human rights and democracy, ahead of an attack on Iraq," says Hafez Abu Saeda, secretary general of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR). His organization thinks that using aid to apply pressure in the case of one man is not the right way to go about it. "If it were used consistently and long-term for furthering democracy and human rights, then I do think that aid can be used," says Abu Saeda. He warns that using aid as a stick at a time when the economy is not doing well will antagonize the Egyptian people, adding, "the aid is meant for them, not for the government."

Government officials such as Mustafa Al Feqi, who heads the Foreign Relations Committee in parliament, take an oddly similar line. "How can a state like the United States, which is a superpower, revise its policy towards a strategic ally such as Egypt because of an individual?" says Al Feqi. He darkly intimates that U.S. interests in the region may be harmed by the measure. "Aid should not be used like this. The Americans need Egypt a lot also. It's a two-way street, it's not only one-sided. Egypt has played a vital role in protecting American interests in the region."

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The aversion to outside interference is one of the strongest elements that unify disparate groups in Egyptian society, from Muslim fundamentalists to left-wing activists. The cultural dimension to the current antagonism between the U.S. and the Arab world is not just a Western invention: Many people just yearn for the outside world to go away and leave Egypt alone.

Montasser Zayat is a lawyer for many of the Islamists whom the government is prosecuting even more vigorously than before Sept. 11. This week alone, a military tribunal sentenced 51 alleged fundamentalists to long prison terms. Zayat is also an unofficial spokesman for the Gama'a Al-Islamiya, a formerly violent fundamentalist movement that has now expressed regret for the victims of its violent campaign in the 1980s and '90s. Zayat also condemns the Sept. 11 attacks as un-Islamic, but is nevertheless vehemently opposed to what he sees as American cultural imperialism.

"The U.S. feels now that it is the leader of the world and it is trying to impose globalization everywhere. By doing that, it is not only crossing geographical borders but it is also crossing cultural barriers. It is trying to impose a unified system, regardless of anyone's cultural rules," says Zayat. Zayat's view of America is not that of a hostile zealot: He visited the States in the 1990s and was impressed by the freedom the people enjoyed and the respect with which he was treated. "I slept better in the U.S. because I felt safer there than here," he says, alluding to the fact that he himself could easily be arrested by the Egyptian government. Yet he is adamant that Egypt not adopt the American way of life, which he is convinced the U.S. is trying to impose on the rest of the world.

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Incredibly, Zayat says that the Americans are now more hated in Egypt than the English, who occupied the country for many years, ever were.

The way in which Zayat expresses himself is oddly similar to the arguments of left-wing activists such as Aida Seif Al-Dawla. She is a co-founder of the Nadim Center for Victims of Torture and a professor of psychiatry at Ein Shams University. Seif Al-Dawla holds deeply anti-Israeli and anti-American views. During a demonstration last month against a visit by Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, she was hit in the face by the police, she says. Street demonstrations are now virtually banned in Cairo. She blames the 11th of September for the deterioration in the human rights situation in Egypt. "I think for the regime in Egypt and other countries in the region, it meant a green light to violate every human right we had fought for so many years. I think the principles of human rights have suffered most thanks to the so-called war on terrorism."

Seif Al-Dawla has a stark view of the world. She thinks Egypt should keep outside influences out. She is opposed to globalization and market-oriented capitalism. She will accept money for her center from Western donors but only when no conditions are attached to the money. She is convinced that the West, including the Europeans, regards the Arabs as the enemy. "For everybody, we have been framed as the dangerous Other. The differences are in how to deal with this dangerous Other."

Like many other people in the Arab world, Seif Al-Dawla does not accept that Arabs or Muslims were to blame for the 11th of September attacks. Even if bin Laden did it, he was probably paid by the Americans themselves, she maintains. Such views are distressingly common. No one I spoke to said openly that they thought the Israelis were responsible, although false stories still circulate about the Jews who supposedly were warned and didn't come to work in the World Trade Center. Some people said they didn't believe that Muslims could have done such an evil thing. Others said that even if Muslims and Arabs did it, they were extremists belonging to a tiny minority that didn't represent any wider trend in Muslim societies. Unfortunately, some of the same people also spouted blatant anti-American nonsense.

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Al-Dawla sounds eerily like the fundamentalist Zayat when she talks about the reasons she thinks are behind the U.S. actions. "I think the 11th of September was a pretext for the U.S. to exercise its control over the world, not only through economic policies but also through military power."

The deep distrust of the West is not confined to fundamentalists and left-wing activists. Average, non-political Egyptians, such as the McDonald's-eating Njarmeen Othman, also feel under attack from Western culture and ideas. "It makes it more complicated than before. I think we want to have simple lives, we don't want these complications at all. Different point of views, different influences, different ideas, it causes a partition among some people, in our society especially."

Anti-Americanism in the Middle East has grown in the year since Sept. 11, but it is only partly because of U.S. actions since then. Taking a more even-handed approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rebuilding Afghanistan, and not going to war against Iraq will no doubt allay some of that antagonism. But issues that involve the U.S.-Egypt relationship directly, namely strategic American support for the Mubarak regime, which has raised internal discontent by its economic mismanagement, by refusing to allow any Islamic political challenges and its abysmal human rights record, will be much harder to resolve. And addressing the still larger issues raised by Western military, political and cultural domination, which many Egyptians fear threaten their entire society and way of life, will be hardest of all.


Ferry Biedermann

Ferry Biedermann is a journalist based in Beirut.

MORE FROM Ferry Biedermann

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Egyptian Protests Iraq Middle East

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