Al-Ahram Weekly Online   28 October - 3 November 2004
Issue No. 714
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Rocks in a candy store

The results are in, and Egyptians don't want Bush as US president. But that doesn't mean they like Kerry either, writes Tarek Atia

There is a recurring theme in US presidential politics, at least from an Arab point of view. And it goes like this: while Israel is in a candy shop, choosing between a lollipop and gum, each sweeter than the other, Arabs are like Charlie Brown at Halloween -- their trick or treat bag is full of rocks.

It's hard, after all, to choose between two candidates who appear little better than each other on issues of most concern to Arabs. "Kerry seems more rational," was a typical response to Al-Ahram Weekly 's straw poll of 100 randomly picked Egyptians -- as well as 10 prominent public figures -- regarding how they would vote and why. "He seems less dangerous than Bush." The key word, in both sentiments, is "seems", since no one knows for sure.

Most respondents were much clearer on the way they felt about Bush. "I hate Bush because we know he hates our guts," was retired re-insurance executive Fathi Hamam's blunt response. The vast majority of those polled -- 90 per cent or so -- echoed his sentiments. "Saying the word 'crusade' made him look like a crusader," Hamam explained. "If there is even a one per cent chance that Kerry will be different, then we should try him."

The majority of respondents to the Weekly 's poll -- 51 per cent -- would vote for Kerry, given the chance. A significant 32 per cent chose neither. Bush got only 12 per cent of the votes, while five per cent chose Ralph Nader.

That same dynamic seems to govern the way most of the world is watching what appear to be the most anticipated elections in recent US history. Surveys like the Weekly 's are being conducted everywhere. A British paper even tried to influence voters in Ohio, with often disastrously hilarious results.

The world is monitoring the US elections as if they were their own, and with good reason; rarely has the identity of the man occupying the White House had such global relevance. The events of the last four years, under George W Bush, have conspired to make that a virtually irrefutable fact.

Outside observers might question the validity of asking people who have little or no say in their own domestic politics to comment on elections in "a galaxy far, far away". Egyptians, after all, choose their president by referendum -- by saying yes or no to just one candidate.

But world citizens have a clear stake in who heads the sole global super power. After all, according to Gamil Mattar, director of the Arab Centre for Development and Futuristic Research, "what happens in the US today has a direct effect on the whole world, and it will stay that way until God knows when."

In the Arab world, as was made clear by the Weekly's survey, as well as by similar experiments on radio, TV, and in other media outlets, politics is local. "Bush has been treating the Arab world as if it were an American state," one caller told Negoum FM. That feeling is the driving force behind most people's desire to have "anyone but Bush" sitting behind the Oval Office desk. "Let's find out what Kerry has in store for our region," medical student Mohamed Adel told the Weekly.

Many respondents were hyper-aware of the fact that whoever governs America is bound to be pro-Israeli. "I see Sharon in both," said Hoda Amer, the director of the People's Assembly media department. "Bush is Kerry and Kerry is Bush. They will both be controlled by Israel," was teacher Said Morsi's response.

Some, like banker Hussein El-Sherif, had a more nuanced view. "Because he cannot run for a third term, and therefore does not have to adopt policies that satisfy the Jewish lobby, Bush may think about improving his policies towards the Arab region before leaving office for good."

Political analyst Osama El-Ghazali Harb was also optimistic about Bush learning from "experience, which will make him wiser". In any case, Harb, the editor of Al-Ahram's Al-Siyassa Al-Dawlia (International Politics) quarterly, said the US is "an institutional state, not one that is purely governed by its presidents."

Bush's wars on Afghanistan, terror and Iraq have meant that many don't see it that way. Housewife Nermeen Abdel-Meguid told us that, "US elections are a stage-play the end of which is known. Bush and Kerry are two sides of one coin. It's all fake and we, the Arabs, will lose in both cases."

Neither Bush nor Kerry is "up to the standard one would expect of a US president", says Mustafa El-Feki, chairman of parliament's foreign affairs committee, even as he asserted that Kerry would be the better choice.

TV technician Ahmed Abdel-Hamid was more blunt, about Bush at least, calling him "a mentally-backward barbarian and thug". In fact, people of all social classes and occupations, from butchers to university lecturers, tended to feel the same way about Bush and his Likudist, neo-con gang of advisors. That, and the perception that Republicans were more likely to be anti-Arab than Democrats, propelled many into choosing Kerry -- albeit unenthusiastically. Student Mo'men Mohamed said the Massachusetts senator would only provide "different pretexts for wars and the occupation of weak countries".

Interestingly, Essam El-Erian, a leading member of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood -- although ultimately opting for Kerry -- gave Bush credit for "forcing Arab governments onto the road for change".

One of the potential beneficiaries of that new dynamic -- the just licensed El-Ghad (Tomorrow) party's secretary-general Mona Makram Ebeid, would still opt for Kerry since "he wants to have positive relations with the rest of the world". In any case, Ebeid said, "having a new US president would be a psychological change for the entire world, and it might defuse the unbearable tension that currently exists".

Always adept at breaking tension with a joke or two, some of our respondents exhibited Egyptians' sense of humour in full force: "I have become very used to both Bush and his father. I can't imagine a US president that doesn't have Bush as a family name," said gift shop owner Safia El-Said. Teaching assistant Mohamed Selim suggested a rather unlikely write-in candidate -- Hizbullah's Hassan Nasrallah.

The black and white world Bush has catalysed may work in Kerry's favour come 2 November. Then again, there are those in the Arab world who appear to share the sentiments of janitor Abdel-Fatah Ismail, who told us "the devil we know is better than the devil we don't. You never know what Kerry is hiding up his sleeve."

For this part of the world, however, housewife Amani Mahmoud's sentiment may be the most relevant for now -- "Arabs should not get their hopes up with this election."

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