Put on your jeans and hate the US
How do we "hate" America? Gihan Shahine counts the ways
Nothing is more symbolic of American culture than McDonald's. But even within this popular haven of Americana, Egyptians are not pulling their punches when expressing their views on US foreign policy. On a recent Friday night, the McDonald's outlet in front of Al-Shams Club in Heliopolis is only half-full -- a far cry from the weekend crowds the fast food franchise drew only a few years ago.
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THE HONEYMOON THAT DID NOT LAST: Egyptians give a warm welcome to former US President Richard Nixon upon his historic visit to Egypt in 1974; Prime Minister Atef Ebeid visits the Ariel factory, boosting the profile of Western products
"[We] love the food, not the US," Sherine, a 23-year-old recent law school graduate, snaps over a burger meal with her pals. Her friends nod in approval. "The point is we don't want to have those guys [McDonald's employees] running around scrounging for a job," Sherine's friend explains while taking a sip of strawberry milkshake. "We already have a serious unemployment crisis and everyone working here is Egyptian. But, of course, we do hate US policy because of its bias towards Israel, the occupation of Iraq and interference with the internal affairs of Arab countries."
Anti-American sentiment, which has been sweeping through "the Egyptian street" since the outbreak of the Intifada in September of 2000, has reached an unprecedented peak during the invasion and now the occupation of Iraq. Just ask "the man in the street" what he feels about the United States and you're most likely to get a tirade of grievances.
During the war on Iraq, burning the American flag was common practice at the public rallies and demonstrations that swept across the country, as tens of thousands of protesters chanted anti-US slogans.
Such sentiments are not confined to Egypt. A survey conducted by the US-based Pew Research Centre (PRC) in December 2002 found that anti- Americanism has increased around the world over the past two years but is concentrated in the Middle East and Central Asia. According to the study, anti-US sentiment ranked highest in Egypt and Pakistan, both of which are considered traditional US allies. Only six per cent of Egyptians and 10 per cent of Pakistanis have favourable views of the US, the study said.
No Arab surveys have been conducted on this issue. However, almost all those interviewed by Al-Ahram Weekly -- ranging from American University in Cairo students and graduates to low-income workers -- expressed deep resentment of US foreign policy. They also made it clear that they do not hate the American people. Most cited economic boycott as an effective means of voicing their anger against the United States. As one person interviewed by the Weekly put it, many are disenchanted with "the illusory US values of democracy and freedom". Others also expressed a strong rejection of American culture and lifestyles.
"Israel and the US are two faces of the same coin," said Dina Helmi, an employee at Cairo Airport. "America is our first enemy," Riham, a despondent AUC graduate insisted. "We'd rather die than buy an American product," Sabah, a house worker, said. "The US will give the money to Israel to buy weapons and kill the Palestinians," she continued. "Many of my friends no longer consider going to American franchises for outings," said Mai, a high school student in Shubra. "They [the US] have taken Iraq. Isn't that enough for people to understand that the US is no longer a friend?" she exclaimed.
Many are voicing their dissent by boycotting American goods. "The boycott may be the best measure of anti-Americanism in Egypt," said Ahmed Bahaaeddin Sha'ban, secretary-general of both the Egyptian and Arab Committees for Popular Boycott. "It started in 2000 and has now reached unprecedented levels, particularly in governorates other than Cairo."
Boycott action received an added push when the former Mufti of the Republic Nasr Farid Wasel issued a fatwa (religious edict) in October 2000 prohibiting the purchase of US and Israeli products in light of the mass killings of Palestinians. The now-banned popular TV programme Rais Al-Tahrir (Editor-in-Chief) also encouraged a popular boycott, and many rallies have been organised by syndicates, political parties and NGOs to draft and update lists of products to boycott.
For almost three years, dozens of boycott lists have been circulating in schools, university campuses and workplaces, as well as through e-mail and SMS. Mai says that her teacher and friends passed out many such lists at school. Journalist and Shubra resident Siham Alyan said she observed a stronger boycott movement during the war on Iraq. "While visiting Shubra, I found almost everyone in the neighbourhood handing out boycott lists," Alyan told the Weekly. "I was so touched that I insisted upon asking a nearby grocer whether anybody was buying US soft drinks and he said that sales had dropped dramatically and that he would not purchase more of them."
There are no official statistics on the effects the boycott has had on sales of US products in Egypt. Many American companies refused to talk to the Weekly about the subject and seem keen to keep a tight lid on publicity about the boycott. However, some have estimated that American franchises in Egypt have lost between 20 to 30 per cent of their profits over the past two years.
"Sales in US fast food chains have dropped by 35 per cent and Procter & Gamble, the maker of Ariel washing powder (which has the misfortune to share its name with the Likud leader, Ariel Sharon), has suffered a fall in sales of more than 20 per cent," The Guardian reported in December 2000.
"Coca Cola, which topped the boycott list for its support of Israel, lost half of its profit in 2002-3," said Sha'ban. The figures he cited were announced in an advertisement published by Coca Cola in Al-Ahram daily newspaper on 20 January of this year in which Coca Cola called "for an urgent meeting on 6 February to review the company's agenda in light of the loss of half of its profit".
"The Coca Cola chairman also decided to close the company's factory in Suez last May, probably because of the great losses the company was suffering there. And only 10 days ago, they shut down [their branch] in Ismailia," Sha'ban added.
Sha'ban says that McDonald's has closed 172 outlets in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and the Gulf in reaction to the popular boycott.
The boycott may not be the only reason Coca Cola and McDonald's are facing financial adversities. Caroline Greiss, marketing manager of McDonald's Egypt, told the Weekly that "a slow- down could be attributed to other factors such as seasonality, exams...etc".
But, figures aside, US companies and franchises have taken many steps in recent years to boost their popularity in Egypt. Last year, Procter & Gamble changed the logo of Ariel detergent, which happened to resemble the Star of David, Israel's national symbol, into two embedded oval-shaped circles. In the same year, the local American Furniture outlet changed its name to Am Furniture. Americana, which owns most of the American food chains in Egypt, began ending its TV ads with the statement "100 per cent Arab".
Even McDonald's began using the phrase "100 per cent Egyptian made" in advertisements. In April 2002, McDonald's ran a full-page ad and a letter from Ana Zoziech, the spokesman of McDonald's worldwide, in the Egyptian press denying claims that the franchise donates money to Israel. Zoziech said that McDonald's Egypt is owned and managed by Egyptians and donates money to help children suffering from cancer and disabilities.
US businessmen and their local partners also urged the Egyptian government to help wage a counter-boycott campaign. Since the launch of the boycott in 2000, Egyptian officials have held press conferences explaining that the boycott will hurt Egyptians more than Americans, since 40 per cent of Egypt's total trade is with the US while less than one per cent of US total trade is with Egypt. When the boycott began, State Minister for Foreign Affairs Fayza Abul-Naga held press conferences asking journalists not to write in favour of the boycott in order to preserve relations between Egypt and the US. Prime Minister Atef Ebeid even visited an Ariel detergent factory, where photos were taken of him holding a pack of the detergent.
"The boycott is one thing we, the people, can do," Dina Helmi comments. "Whether it causes America losses or not, we have to convey our message."
The PRC survey, however, suggests that attitudes towards the US in various countries around the world are "complicated and contradictory, with people at the same time embracing American things and decrying US influence on their societies". The study, which was spearheaded by Madeleine Albright, former US secretary of state and chair of the Pew Global Attitudes Project, suggests that people in many countries "liked American television, films and music, and thought the spread of American science and technology was beneficial".
In Cairo, despite the current wave of anti- Americanism, American films, especially those featuring famous stars, still draw large audiences and many people continue to adopt what some consider to be an American style of living.
Is there a contradiction in popular attitudes?
"Regular cinema-goers are for the most part happy-go-lucky teens who have no interest in politics at all," says, Abdallah Abdel-Rahman, the manager of the Geneina movie theatre in Nasr City.
Ghada, a 35-year-old housewife and AUC graduate, says she does not feel bad watching American movies despite the fact that she takes part in the boycott. "I hate US policy, not the people or the actors, many of whom stood up against the US war on Iraq," Ghada explained.
Galal Amin, professor of economics at AUC, also regards politics and lifestyle as two separate spheres. "Lifestyle is motivated by one's income level and conceptions about what a good life is," Amin said. "You don't usually change your attitude in this respect due to a political change. That is, you can still feel bitter about the US while putting your jeans on."
Abdel-Aziz Hamouda, professor of English literature at Cairo University and Egypt's former cultural attaché to the US, however, says that a duality exists in Arab attitudes, a balance between hatred of American foreign policy and fascination with the American dream. In his book Sinae't Al-Karahiya fi Al-Ilaqat Al-Masriyeh Al- Amrikiyeh (The Industry of Hatred in US-Arab Relations) published in December 2002, Hamouda explains the crucial role that duplicity has played in Arab-US relations.
According to Hamouda, American cinema, introduced to Egypt in 1930, played a key role in boosting US popularity among Arabs by presenting utopian images of the American dream and lifestyle. Fascination with the American dream came to a head in the 1950s, when the US symbolised values of freedom, equity and self- determination. Hamouda contends that at the time, the United States did not have colonial interests in the Arab region and therefore enjoyed tremendous popularity, unlike colonial masters Britian and France.
Although the honeymoon ended abruptly when people realised that the US was attempting to curb the rising wave of pan-Arab nationalism, led by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, many Arabs continued to be captivated by the American way of life. After 1967, that fascination translated into massive Arab migration to the US and a conscious indulgence in American culture and technology.
Arab passion for the US, Hamouda says, presented "a safety valve" for the United States, which "apparently made utmost use of it", and curbed the growth of popular hostility towards the US. However, as Hamouda says, US policies in the region have caused attitudes to shift. "Today, after what happened in Iraq, I would say the safety valve, or the Arab fascination for the US, no longer exists," Hamouda says. "Arabs now put the US and Israel into one basket and I hope that this will not lead to more Islamist extremism."
Still, Hamouda insists that Egyptians don't necessarily hate the American people. "Egyptians are civilised enough to make the distinction between policy and the people. In this respect, they are more civilised than the Americans who find it difficult to distinguish between Saddam Hussein and the Iraqis," Amin concurred. "Egyptians have a profound sense of bitterness and disdain for American politics, represented by Bush and his administration, but would never classify an American walking in the streets as an aggressor."
Hamouda says he expects to see an increase in culturally-based anti-American movements. "I predict a return to cultural roots to counterbalance the new values of American consumerism which have penetrated our everyday life," he said.
Helmi and Riham are cases in point. In response to their disenchantment with American lifestyles, they are reacquainting themselves with Arab-Islamic culture. Mai also testifies to the spread of Islamic culture. She says her colleagues at school turned to religion whenever they felt that "Islam was a target during the US war on Iraq".
One prominent characteristic of the current wave of anti-Americanism relates to the fact that many Egyptians continue to embrace much of what is defined as "American culture" while at the same time proclaiming themselves anti- American. Students at AUC have shown intense anger toward the US through massive demonstrations. Many also organised charity campaigns to send aid to Palestinians and Iraqis. For the majority of these students, however, anti-American sentiments are not synonymous with a rejection of western lifestyles. As one student told the Weekly, they "do not think about the US when they wear jeans or eat burgers", which many students now consider part of their own lifestyle.
For Riham, however, the massive demonstration that AUC students waged in support of Palestine two years ago in Tahrir Square marked a turning point. "I always thought the American life was so cool and I was so empty-headed in just imitating Americans in everything," Riham recounts. She calls the Tahrir protest "a wake-up call" and says, "Now, even when I watch an American movie, I do so with a critical mind, trying to see what values [they] want to engrave in our minds."
This does not mean Riham has given up American things altogether. She says she still pursues an American-style education and American technology because she says they are "necessary elements for development". Riham also says she would accept a job in an American company if it were the "only suitable job I could find to develop my career".
On the other hand, Susanna, a 30-year-old computer programmer, turned down an offer by her father-in-law to enroll and pay for her 3-year-old child to attend an American school. "It is a generous offer, of course, but I would not provide my son with a good education at the expense of his cultural identity and values," she explained.
This explains why the US is exerting so much effort to polish its image in the region. Millions of dollars have been invested into a media campaign geared to Islamic societies in order to show that Muslims are well-treated in the United States. Nelly El-Zayat from the non-profit American-Middle East Education and Training Services (AMIDEAST) told the Weekly, "US universities have been showing a keen interest in [admitting] students from the Middle East in the aftermath of 11 September, probably stemming from a desire to understand the Arab mentality, all despite hindering visa regulations."
Meanwhile, the consensus remains, among those who continue to crave the occasional Big Mac, or those who have renounced them; in T- shirt and blue jeans or hijab.