ABB in Cairo
The November US presidential elections have become a vote of referendum on the Bush administration's policies. Yasmine El-Rashidi
reports on how the turmoil in Iraq has swayed the vote of US citizens in Egypt
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The formerly impenetrable US feeling of solidarity was shattered by both 9/11 and the US administration's conduct towards the attrocities in Iraq (photos: AP, AFP, Reuters)
It is just past 10am on a Wednesday. Outside, the tree-lined streets are subdued. A few cars drone by, the echo of laughing teenagers filters through an open back window, and the chatter of birds provides a soothing backdrop to the ensuing debate.
It is several weeks since the assassination of Hamas leader Abdul-Aziz Al-Rantisi -- the second Hamas leader slain in a span of three weeks -- and amidst a gathering of 13 women at a coffee morning in the Cairene suburb of Maadi (the preferred residential district for Americans in Cairo), talk of the regional havoc dominates chatter.
"As an American, I am ashamed of the policies of my country and its current administration," says Julia Moore, the Texan wife of a consultant geologist for a US oil company. "It's embarrassing at this point in history to be an American because you are looked at differently, looked down upon."
Heads, apparently instinctively, nod in accord.
"And it's most unfortunate that I must add," she says, pausing, nibbling her lower lip, glancing around the room to gauge reaction and perhaps, again, approval. "That the contention is justified."
The nodding this time includes mumbles articulating the assurance of support -- something this community seeks amidst an environment warned by the US Embassy to be hostile to their kind.
"This Public Announcement is being updated to remind US citizens of the continuing threat of terrorist actions and anti- American violence against US citizens and interests overseas," the US Department of State said in a Public Announcement release on 23 May. "This supersedes the Worldwide Caution dated 23 March, 2004 and expires on 23 October, 2004." Prior Warden Notice warnings were issued on 29 April, 24 March, 19 March.
The warnings came in response to both the assassinations of Hamas leaders Al-Rantisi and the paraplegic Sheikh Yassin, but also to implied information known within the elusive barracks of the US intelligence circles -- most recently tied to the US' brutal presence in Iraq and the subsequent global outcry to the unruly occupation.
"The situation in Iraq has turned sour," pitches in Kansan Patricia Howard, who moved to Egypt three years ago. "A year ago I felt differently about the US strike on Iraq. You can't look at it in the same light any more. You can't look at Bush in the same way any more either. I'm a Republican, I was raised a Republican, and for many months after the war I was willing to give Bush another chance. The severity of the current situation though forces one to rethink. I've rethought, and I want him out -- Lord knows the greater mess he can create with another four years in office."
These women have been in Egypt for between one and 11 years -- the spouses of US employed businessmen, politicians and consultants. They talk openly of both their distaste for the current US president, and as well for their changed perspective of the Middle East -- one evolved from the façade media-spun shades of terrorist gray to the vibrant coloured portrait known to those familiar with its cultural backbone. Those altered realities move US citizens from self-created pedestals of critique, to positions of increased openness, objectivity, compassion to the people of the Middle East and the impact of US foreign policy on their lives.
"There are some foreigners that come here and can't handle it," Howard says. "For someone like myself," she continues, "The first year had me grinding my teeth. In the US I was fed with all the bad mouthing about the Arabs and the Middle East. At first you can't really get yourself to see past that. You've got to really open your eyes and lay aside those negative typecasts."
Talk suddenly breaks up into mass murmur in the room -- the sharing of those moments during which eyes were opened and terrorist stereotypes dispelled. Two women confess to a continuing hard time -- the contrasting Egyptian culture still not quite offering the space for a settled state of mind.
Weeks later, several days after the release of pictures in The Washington Post revealing US soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners, the gathering meets again for their weekly social event. I attend, once again prodding for reaction.
One woman is fervent in her response, positioning herself in consequence as the pillar of debate. She is one of the two women who weeks earlier expressed a somewhat hassled anticipation for the family's July return home. This time, she sets aside the inability to adapt to the taxing potholes of a developing nation, and instead focusses on the pure politics of the situation. The wife of a US diplomat, she asks her name remain withheld.
"We are ABB," she says, moving forward in the sofa, straightening her back, animating her speech with her hands. "Anything But Bush," she explains, triggering an acknowledging chuckle in the room. "He turned a surplus into a deficit, he cut taxes, and used what is coming in for the war -- so there is no money. And he is the reason that all these young girls and boys are being killed and that our soldiers have behaved in such a brash manner. This war reflects acute lack of planning."
She pauses, a sigh encapsulating the exasperation.
Under Bush, the US has lost 2.2 million jobs, companies shifting their services abroad in search of profit. In January, America's trade gap with the rest of the world swelled to a fresh record of $43.1 billion. Exports slipped in consecutive months, and the trade deficit with China -- a particular bugbear for the Bush administration -- rose to $11.5 billion in January, compared with $9.4 billion a year earlier. That economic uncertainty, coupled with the heightened and continued violence in Iraq, has had a steadily corrosive impact on Bush's popularity worldwide.
"Some people say Bush is decisive, but Bush is decisive too far," shares the diplomat's wife. "And that crosses the line into foolhardy. When you make a decision, you gather all the information you can, and then you make it. Bush doesn't, he makes it without thought."
The war has categorically been the exemplary illustration of that thoughtless haste and unfounded action. In Cairo, even amongst those who once held presidential leeway for natural human margin of error, that tainted impression of Bush's conduct is rife.
"Virtually everyone agrees that Saddam Hussein is a bad guy and needed to be dealt with," says David Phelps, a Texan native currently in Egypt with a US oil company. "However, a unilateral invasion of a sovereign nation that posed no real threat to the US is not an acceptable way to deal with the problem. In addition, the Bush policies, in Iraq, Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East have only acted to strengthened terrorist organisations such as Al-Qaeda; thus increasing, not decreasing the threat to the US."
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry effortlessly wins Phelps' vote.
"I think the Bush administration's policies are jeopardising the security of the US, not to mention much of the rest of the world," he explains of his choice, adding that the US invasion of Iraq fast swayed and quelled any inkling to give Bush benefit of the doubt. "My vote is very much about voting against what Bush stands for."
Perhaps unlike any other time in history, this year's US presidential election race stands not as an expression of who US citizens would like in office, but rather of who, and what, they want out.
"I will vote for Kerry," shares a US diplomat who asks her name be withheld. "Because I would vote for anyone to get Bush out of the White House. Kerry was not my first choice of candidates, but as I said, I am voting against an individual [Bush], even though in truth I am solidly Democratic."
Iraq, again, has instigated further dissatisfaction for the current administration.
"I have always thought this administration was awful," she says. "The Iraq situation has just illustrated some thoughtless and anti-democratic behaviours that sadly do not surprise me. I don't feel any government has the right to oust a sovereign power. What? Was Saddam the only dictator in the world today that was/is committing human rights abuses?"
In his 28 May address -- one of a series of 11 -- Democratic candidate Kerry pointed a finger at the so-called uprooting of dictatorship, accusing the Bush administration of undermining the safety of the American people with its foreign policy. He characterised Bush's approach as excessively belligerent, saying the administration's national security team had "looked to force before exhausting diplomacy".
"Over the last year, we've heard from the president that our policy should be to simply stay the course," Kerry told supporters in Seattle. "Staying the course is important. But staying the wrong course is not a sign of strength, it is a mark of stubbornness, and it ultimately weakens this nation and the world."
History professor Joseph Walwick, a Kansas City native currently teaching at the American University in Cairo, describes the Bush created havoc as a matter "beyond reason and discourse".
"In terms of my vote, I think of that as being a matter of privacy," he says. "But in terms of the current situation, the prison scandal, the whole set of problems with Iraq, I can say that it has depressed me greatly. If it's not criminal, it's criminally stupid. It reflects an administration acting without looking for a long-range solution. The goal was laudable, but was subverted by the means of attaining it. The process of achieving it was undermined."
Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfwitz and Bush are being slated for not conforming to a meticulous plan of action. Their aim to free the citizens of Iraq, and allegedly relieve the world of the threat of weapons of mass destruction at the hands of Iraq -- as was preached to the world -- is being scorned, Bush fumbling to retain what little dignity remains affront his people.
"A bush victory in November would serve as a mandate to continue current policies," Walwick says. "This [electoral] race is not about individuals. It could be any candidate running, the vote will be a referendum on the party in power. Kerry would not be a vote 'for' as much as it is 'against'. In terms of policies, one has to bear in mind that the two primary candidates are not that different, except maybe foreign policy. What is charging the people is that they feel misled."
The Economist of 29 May - 4 June cites a Gallup Organisation poll: "In April last year, 76 per cent of Americans thought that the war had been worthwhile. By last weekend, 52 per cent had come to think the opposite. This should surprise nobody. Public support rested on an assumption that Mr Bush has good reason to be in Iraq, and a clear idea of how to get out."
In his speech on 25 May at the Army War College, Bush addressed the US's role in Iraq after the handover.
"As the Iraqi people move closer to governing themselves," he said. "The terrorists are likely to become more active and more brutal. There are difficult days ahead, and the way forward may sometimes appear chaotic. Yet our coalition is strong, our efforts are focussed and unrelenting, and no power of the enemy will stop Iraq's progress... The terrorists' only influence is violence, and their only agenda is death. Our agenda, by contrast, is freedom and independence, security and prosperity for the Iraqi people. And by removing a source of terrorist violence and instability in the Middle East," he continued, "we also make our own country more secure,"
The following day, a Washington Post /ABC News poll in the United States showed George Bush's approval ratings sink to a new low. For the first time, fewer than half of the Americans (47 per cent) said they approved of the president's overall job performance, 50 per cent said they disapproved. The approval rating marks a four point drop from last month, a fall reflected most acutely in a seven-point drop among seemingly disenchanted Republicans. The general feelings about the president's handling of Iraq is also deemed at its bleakest -- 58 per cent of voters saying they disapproved. The prisoner abuse atrocities have also etched at the remnants of his faded popularity: early in May, 35 per cent of voters placed blame on Bush -- a few weeks later, that number had soared to 57 per cent.
The mangling of the Iraqi nation is being paralleled to that of Vietnam, and the standing of Bush to that of Ronald Regan upon the breaking of the Iran-contra scandal. September 11 and Fahrenheit 9/11 have done little to help the prospects of the stumbling Republican candidate. Fahrenheit 9/11 -- Michael Moore's latest documentary which won the Palme d'Or award at the Cannes Film Festival last month -- includes evidence of alleged links between Bush and Bin Laden families. It has been reported to be blocked from US screening "so that the Americans don't see it before the election".
"As Americans," Phelps shares, "We have become increasingly aware of how interdependent the world is; how the actions and attitudes of Americans can have repercussions well beyond the borders of our country."
Perhaps as time alleviated the initial bitterness and outrage, the atrocity of 11 September ingrained that awareness within Americans previously oblivious to the borders beyond the 52 states -- fuelling the softening towards the Iraqi people and the outrage at the commanding finger behind the massacre.
"I think 11 September was a wake-up call for Americans," shares a four-year diplomatic American resident of Cairo. "Prior to the attack, we had felt both complacent and removed from the terrors that others felt. It [9/11] has coloured my perspective on the world in the sense that I am more sympathetic to such atrocities in other zones, and I'm clearer that the world is getting smaller, so the physical position of the US does less to protect us from enemies now than it used to. It does not make me feel less secure [as an American in Egypt]. What makes me feel less secure is the hatred towards America that the Iraq war, occupation, and now prison situation is creating. I cannot imagine a better way to support anti-American sentiment that the refusal of the leadership of the Armed Forces -- right up to the commander-in-chief -- to take responsibility for it."
In America's battle-scarred political landscape -- stained by its crusades around the globe -- there is perhaps just one thing that unites its citizens dispersed in conglomerates around the world: they stand unified in their distaste of the political upheaval in the world, awaiting the November elections as their outlet for expression.
"In contrast to previous elections, where people could see few tangible differences between the two candidates," Arab member of the Knesset Azmi Bishara wrote last month, "this time what differences exist are more pronounced; more elaborate than a simple choice between similar products -- Pepsi and Coke, for example."