Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 April 2009
Issue No. 944
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Symbol of justice?

How far can President Barack Obama improve the image of the United States in the Arab and Muslim worlds? Gihan Shahine gauges public sentiment

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Obama in Washington signing an executive order to close the "War on Terror" prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; Protesters in the Jordanian capital Amman in support of Muntadhar Al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist arrested for throwing his shoes at Bush

>Mona, a 35-year-old advertising executive who has recently returned from a three-month visit to the United States, no longer feels "ashamed" of expressing positive feelings about the US. It is not just that she admires the smooth traffic, clean boulevards and attractive malls of California where her brother lives. But, like many Egyptians today, she is able to dwell on the fact that the US has proved it has the kind of democratic political system that allows a black man from a modest background to become its president -- the kind of political system that we in Egypt perhaps do not have.

However, talking favourably about the United States was almost a stigma as little as a few months ago. The US has been widely perceived in recent years as the source of all the evil and bloodshed in the Arab and Islamic worlds -- starting with US support for the Israeli massacres of Palestinian civilians, to the havoc it has wreaked in Afghanistan and Iraq, to the world financial crisis that is now in full swing. The shoe-throwing incident directed against former US president George W Bush in Iraq some months ago, which received wide applause in the Arab world, is perhaps symbolic of the pent-up grievances that many Egyptians and Arabs had felt for the United States over the past few years.

Anti-American sentiment soared in the Arab world, including in Egypt, following the outbreak of the Palestinian Intifada in September 2000 and reached an unprecedented height after the US occupation of Iraq. During the war on Iraq, burning the American flag was commonplace at public rallies and demonstrations across the country, with tens of thousands of protesters chanting anti-US slogans. A survey conducted by the US-based Pew Research Centre (PRC) in December 2002 found that anti-Americanism had increased around the world since 2000, but had become concentrated in the Middle East and Central Asia. According to the study, anti- US sentiment ranked highest in Egypt and Pakistan, and only six per cent of Egyptians and 10 per cent of Pakistanis had favourable views of the US.

A later 2007 Pew poll of eight Middle Eastern countries confirmed the earlier findings, with majorities ranging from 57 per cent in Lebanon to 92 per cent in Morocco saying they were worried "that the US could become a military threat to [our] country someday". A large majority of Egyptian (85 per cent), and Turkish people (76 per cent) similarly told a BBC poll at the time that the US "provoked more conflict than it prevents" in the Middle East.

Large majorities said they thought it was a goal of the United States to "maintain control over the oil resources of the Middle East", including majorities of Egyptians (91 per cent), Moroccans (82 per cent), Pakistanis (68 per cent), Jordanians (87 per cent), Palestinians (89 per cent), and Turks (89 per cent). According to a poll carried out by World (WPO), an international research project involving public opinion research centres in 25 nations around the world, large majorities in six countries surveyed also said that a goal of US foreign policy was to "weaken and divide the Islamic world", including majorities of those surveyed in Egypt (92 per cent), Palestine (87 per cent), Turkey (82 per cent), Jordan (80 per cent), Morocco (78 per cent) and Pakistan (73 per cent). In Egypt, at least eight out of 10 people are thought to have approved of countering US military activities in the region, according to the WPO.

Similarly, a summer 2008 WPO poll of five Muslim countries found very small numbers of people saying that they believed that "the US favours democracy in Muslim countries, whether or not the government is cooperative with the US." In Egypt the figures were 16 per cent of those polled, in Jordan six per cent, in Turkey seven per cent, and in Palestine 11 per cent. Strikingly high numbers of people -- Egypt (91 per cent), Morocco (64 per cent), Jordan (63 per cent) and Turkey (52 per cent) -- doubted that the United States was genuinely seeking to create a Palestinian state, according to the WPO poll. Instead, the study showed that 91 per cent of Egyptians and Palestinians and 78 per cent of Turks believed that it was a goal of United States policy to expand Israeli territory.

With this kind of background, the question of whether the new and highly charismatic US president, Barack Obama, can restore the image of the United States in the Middle East has provoked debate throughout the world. While it is perhaps too early to give a definitive answer to this question, a gauge of public sentiment in Egypt suggests an eclectic mix of reactions to the new US president, ranging from enthusiasm and admiration to frustration and despair. However, almost all of those who talked to Al-Ahram Weekly on the matter expressed a kind of cautious enthusiasm, and this is perhaps the best way to describe the current Arab and Muslim mindset.

There is no doubting that last year's US presidential elections grabbed unprecedented attention in Egypt and the Middle East, with many even staying up all night to know the results. Obama's victory in these elections inspired so much hope and enthusiasm in the Arab world that the media was full of images of people dancing for joy at the Democratic candidate's victory and the defeat of the Republicans. There was something of a consensus among analysts at the time that the United States, which had lost its credibility in the region during the Bush administration, had now returned to its true role, fascinating world audiences with its capability for change and its political system that allowed it to challenge a history of racial discrimination and elect an African-American man from a modest background president.

"Our admiration for Obama is grounded in what he represents: fairness," wrote the prominent Egyptian writer Alaa El-Aswani, author of the best-selling novel The Yacoubian Building, in the New York Times. "This fairness is precisely what we are missing in Egypt."

However, whether the United States will now apply this same code of fairness to international relations remains an open question.

A July-August 2008 BBC/GlobeScan/PIPA poll of people in 22 countries around the world found that those who thought an Obama presidency would have a positive effect on US relations with the rest of the world stood at only 29 per cent in Egypt, 11 per cent in Turkey, 30 per cent in Lebanon and 40 per cent in the UAE. A Pew poll conducted in spring 2008 also found that only "small minorities" in the Middle East "expressed some or a lot of confidence in Obama to do the right thing in international affairs," the figures being Pakistan (seven per cent), Egypt (23 per cent), Turkey (seven per cent), Jordan (20 per cent) and Lebanon (22 per cent).

Yet, since he took the oath of office earlier this year President Obama has apparently been keen to send out messages of reconciliation to the Arab and Muslim worlds. Not only did he give his first major interview to the Al-Arabiya satellite channel, but he also, and more importantly perhaps, extended an olive branch to the Muslim world when he said that "Americans are not your enemy" and "it is possible for us to see a Palestinian state."

These statements marked the beginning of a spate of friendly statements made by the new president. Obama expressed his readiness to negotiate nuclear issues with Iran, and he talked of setting up a schedule for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and for the closure of the US detention camp in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. He also seemed to state that he was ready to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan. All these statements were points in the new president's favour in the Arab and Muslim worlds, as was Obama's recent visit to Turkey, where he chose to reiterate his message that the United States was not at war with the Muslim world.

"The friendly rhetoric that Obama is adopting -- a far cry from the tyrannical tone of his predecessor -- has undoubtedly inspired hope and helped improve the image of America in the Arab world," notes Mahmoud Khalil, head of the e-journalism department at the Faculty of Mass Communications, Cairo University.

However, this kind of hope is in danger of giving way to feelings of frustration should people suspect that "all they are getting is words and messages of reconciliation and that nothing is actually happening on the ground," Khalil continues.

This frustration could be partly the product of a "cultural gap," Khalil says, since "people in authoritarian countries like ours are used to seeing all the power in the hands of the president, which is why they tend to perceive Obama as a longed-for saviour who will spread justice throughout the world. They should understand that the US president is part of an administration that has an agenda that does not necessarily change with just the change of one person."

On a more optimistic note, Khalil nevertheless thinks that Obama's messages of reconciliation "should not be taken lightly. After all, they could be one way of indicating to the world that the new US president is getting the world ready for a new policy."

Just what this new policy will entail remains to be seen. The current world financial crisis, the unprecedented rise in unemployment in the US, and the US military's dilemmas in Iraq and Afghanistan, are the top priorities on the new president's agenda, pushing other issues of foreign policy down the list.

However, according to El-Aswani at least, the signs are not all promising. El-Aswani believes that Obama has already failed his first real test over the Israeli attacks on Gaza, with many people receiving their first real shock when Obama remained silent about the estimated 1,300 Palestinians who were killed at the hands of Israeli forces. Though Obama had not yet taken office at the time, many people had expected him at least to criticise the killings. For El-Aswani, it was at this time that people realised "how far the distance was between the American values that Obama embodies, and what could actually be accomplished in a country where support for Israel seems to transcend human rights and international law."

It is this impression, rightly or wrongly, that has not died out to date, despite Obama's messages of goodwill to the Arab and Muslim worlds. One disgruntled Cairo taxi driver told the Weekly recently, for example, that he did not expect Obama to be able to do anything for Egypt or for Muslims. "He can't do anything in the face of Israeli pressure," he said. "As you know many Americans are also Jews. Can't you see that people in Gaza are still suffering? Nothing has changed." And an examination of comments on bloggers' Internet sites reflects a similar scepticism. "Muslims believed that Obama HAD TO praise Israel in order to win the election," wrote one blogger. "And after he was elected president, he would be on the Muslims' side. How much more obvious can it be that this is NOT TRUE. After all, look at the first thing he did after being elected; he picked a Zionist for his Chief of Staff."

"The only reason I'm happy (actually very happy) is because of the historical importance of [Obama's] winning," another blogger responded, saying that "he is just like any other politician, and I don't expect any help from him. And I won't be surprised if he pulls something against the Muslims."

"I think we should maybe stop looking for outside help and start looking inwards," noted another respondent. "It's a mistake to think that US policy will change with the change of presidents."

A recent study by Steven Kull, director of the WPO and the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland, has similarly come to the conclusion that "not being Bush is not enough to turn around US relations with the Middle East." Restoring the US's image in the Middle East, Kull insists, will depend on whether the United States will "continue to have a dominating military presence in the region... play an even-handed role in the Israel-Palestinian conflict and... support democratization in the region."

Like many others, Khalil does not expect much change in the United States' agenda in the region either, but he is optimistic about a shift in the way in which policy is executed. "Our [the Arab and Muslim worlds'] weakness makes us a constant target of Western colonial interests," he says, and in any case "Obama is dreaming about a US empire that will extend even further than that of Bush, though this is an empire that will not be constructed through military power and bloodshed. Rather, the new president's policy will rely on the use of 'soft power' in achieving US colonial interests through capturing the minds of young people and through economic hegemony."

It is a fact that the United States has always exploited Arab passions for American culture and lifestyle, and that this has operated as a kind of safety valve for the US. There has long been a duality in Arab attitudes towards America, built on the one hand on a hatred of American foreign policy and on the other on a fascination with the American dream. Even in the wake of the recent wave of anti- Americanism and the spread of economic boycotts of American products, a Pew survey suggested that many people still embraced American culture and still "like American television, films and music, and think that the spread of American science and technology is beneficial."

"This duality dates back to the French occupation of Egypt," Khalil comments. "We have always looked at the West as both a threat and a dream. You can see this mixed attitude reflected in people's eclectic outfits and lifestyles: even those who express resentment towards the United States still crave an American education, wear jeans and dream of emigrating to the US."

Reflecting on these attitudes, in his 2002 book Sinae't Al-Karahiya fi Al-Ilaqat Al-Masriyeh Al-Amrikiyeh (The Industry of Hatred in US-Arab Relations), the late Abdel-Aziz Hamouda, who served as Egypt's cultural attaché to the US, explained how American cinema, introduced into Egypt in 1930, played a key role in boosting the popularity of the US among Arab audiences, notably by presenting attractive images of the American dream and lifestyle. Fascination with the American dream came to a head in the 1950s, when the US symbolised the values of freedom, equality and self- determination. Hamouda's study explains that since the United States did not have colonial interests in the Arab region at the time, it therefore enjoyed tremendous popularity, unlike the European colonial powers of Britain and France.

This Arab-US honeymoon ended abruptly when it was realised that the US was attempting to curb the pan-Arab nationalism led by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Hamouda's study argues, though many Arabs continued to be captivated by the American way of life. After 1967, that fascination translated into large-scale Arab emigration to the US and an increased fascination with American culture and technology.

In his more recent study, Kull explains how boosting US popularity in the Middle East remains "crucial to its [US] soft power. When the United States is unpopular in the region, it is more difficult for governments there to cooperate with it, and it becomes politically rewarding for leaders to be defiant towards the United States. Equally worrisome, when Al-Qaeda's criticisms of the United States resonate with a majority of people, this creates a more favourable environment for Al-Qaeda to raise funds, recruit, and operate."

Kull's point about the connections between US "soft power" and the hard power of its foreign and military policy in the region is underwritten by the petitions demanding boycotts of US products that have been circulating in schools, on university campuses and in workplaces, as well as through e-mail and SMS, since the outbreak of the Palestinian Intifada in 2000. There have been no official statistics on the effects of such boycotts on sales of US products in Egypt. However, some have estimated that American franchises in the country saw losses of between 20 to 30 per cent between 2000 and 2003.

The British newspaper The Guardian, for example, reported in December 2000 that "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." Coca-Cola, which topped the boycott list for its support of Israel, reportedly lost half its profits in 2002-03, and there were press reports at the time that the company had decided to close its factories in Suez and Ismailia, presumably because of losses the company was suffering. McDonald's at the same time also reportedly closed 172 outlets in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and the Gulf in reaction to a popular boycott.

Such commercial developments reflect the fact that the "safety valve" represented by the Arab passion for American culture breaks down when people see the US and Israel as directly linked. In a move to counter the escalating anti-Americanism in the region that had come about as a result of popular perceptions of that link, the US some years ago launched a media campaign in the region with a budget of some $400 million to improve its image. Radio Sawa, the Arabic-language Al-Hurra satellite channel, and Hi magazine (which stopped a few months after its launch) were all efforts in that vein. Millions of dollars have also been invested by the US in a media campaign targeting Muslim countries that aims to show that Muslims are well- treated in the United States.

Despite such campaigns, there is a consensus that US efforts to improve its image in the Arab and Muslim worlds failed over the past years, presenting a difficult task to new US President Obama.

A study by Mohamed El-Nawawy, a communications professor at Queens University in Charlotte, NC, surveyed 394 Arab college students in five Arab countries on the credibility of Al-Hurra and Sawa networks. El-Nawawy reported that "once students began watching and listening to the networks, their attitudes towards US foreign policy, in fact, worsened slightly." He concluded that US officials had a rough time changing Arab hearts and minds and that those media propaganda efforts will be "ineffective in changing Arab public opinion if that public is dissatisfied with US policies on the ground."

"People are sceptical about American efforts, and no one took Sawa or Al-Hurra seriously," Khalil says. In his view, these media initiatives were in any case only meant "to distract public attention from USAID projects whose hidden agenda was to brainwash an important segment of society, young people," and he points to USAID "projects in Egypt aiming 'to update' the religious discourse propagated at Al-Azhar, to alter the curriculum at the Faculty of Economics at Cairo University in such a way that it promotes the values of globalisation, and to create a new generation of journalists who will write in favour of, or at least not attack, US policies through a USAID training programme geared to young journalists and undergraduates."

Many of these programmes encourage young people to travel to the US where they may get even more fascinated by American culture, Khalil says, and he expects more such "brainwashing" programmes to see the light of day under Obama's administration, particularly now that Obama's "yes we can" slogan has reminded many of the poignant difference between the US and Arab regimes.

El-Aswani sums it up this way: "Egypt lacks a fair system that bases advancement on qualifications. Young people often get good jobs because they have connections. Ministers are not elected and instead are appointed by the president. Not surprisingly, this inequitable system often leads young people to frustration or to religious extremism. Others flee the country, hoping to find justice elsewhere."

If the new US president really aims to improve the US's image in the Arab and Muslim worlds, it is time for him to show that he is more than just a symbol of justice.

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