Parity not patronage
US popularity in the Middle East remains low in the wake of the revolutions that have swept the region. Gihan Shahine asks why
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Clockwise from left : the 25 January revolutionaries; US President Barack Obama; US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
Karim El-Beheiri, a young political activist and blogger who took part in Egypt's 25 January Revolution which ousted the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak, did not agree to meet US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her recent visit to Egypt. For him, as for many others, the United States should first end its patronising attitude towards Egypt and build a relationship based on parity instead.
Since this had not happened when Clinton visited Egypt, El-Beheiri preferred not to respond to her invitation to meet with the young people behind the 25 January Revolution. He was not the only one. Many other members of the coalition of young people who had organised the revolution similarly refused to meet Clinton "in protest at the United States' strong support for former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak who was ousted by the uprising," according to the US network ABC News.
"The US administration took Egypt's revolution lightly and supported the old regime while Egyptian blood was being spilled," the youth coalition wrote on Facebook.
There is almost a consensus in Egypt that US policy towards the uprising in Egypt was at best hesitant, if not initially supportive of the former regime. "It was very clear from the beginning that the US administration was supportive of Mubarak's regime," El-Beheiri told Al-Ahram Weekly in an interview. At the outset of the revolution, Clinton was quoted as saying that the US assessment was that "the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people."
"The US acted foolishly, first by asking Egyptians to maintain their self-control and then, when it felt that the people were getting the upper hand, supporting the uprising in an attempt to save face," El-Beheiri said. "But people are intelligent enough to understand US tactics. The US only cares about its interests in the region, definitely not about democracy or human rights as the administration has claimed."
El-Beheiri is not the only one to think this way. According to a nationwide survey of Egypt carried out by the US-based Pew Research Centre's Global Attitudes Project, "favourable ratings of the US remain as low as they have been in recent years."
The centre, which conducted face-to-face interviews with 1,000 adults in Egypt between 25 March and 7 April this year, discovered that only 20 per cent of Egyptians think favourably of the United States, nearly identical to the 17 per cent who rated it favourably in 2010. The poll found that better-educated and younger Egyptians have a slightly more positive attitude towards the US than others.
US President Barack Obama rated almost the same as last year in the survey, with 35 per cent of those surveyed expressing confidence in Obama to do the right thing in world affairs, compared with 33 per cent in 2010. "The American president gets more negative than positive reviews for how he is handling the political changes sweeping through the Middle East: 52 per cent disapprove of how Obama is dealing with the calls for political change in nations such as Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Libya," the survey found. "A plurality of those who disapprove say Obama has shown too little support for those who are calling for change."
When asked specifically about the US response to the political situation in Egypt, 39 per cent said the US has had a negative impact, while just 22 per cent said it has had a positive effect, and 35 per cent volunteered that the US has neither positively nor negatively influenced the situation in the country.
Looking to the future, few Egyptians (15 per cent) want closer ties with the US, while 43 per cent would prefer a more distant relationship, and 40 per cent would like the relationship between the two countries to remain about as close as it has been in recent years.
"Israel fares even more poorly," wrote the survey's authors. "By a 54per cent to 36 per cent margin, Egyptians want the peace treaty with that country annulled."
The US has long been interested to monitor its popularity in the Middle East, and according to some analysts this has been because the US administration has been keen to look for safety valves to curb the growth of hostility towards the US in the region.
However, Arab views of the US are far from being entirely negative. Indeed, the Arab passion for all things American started with the introduction of American cinema into the region in the 1930s and later translated into massive Arab migration to the US and the adoption of American culture and technology.
But US policies in the region, together with its bias towards Israel, have hurt US popularity, with a wave of anti-Americanism sweeping the region after the outbreak of the Palestinian Intifada in September 2000.
Anti-Americanism reached a peak during and after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, when burning the American flag became a common practice at public rallies and demonstrations across Egypt, with tens of thousands of protesters chanting anti-US slogans. A 2002 Pew survey monitoring this wave of anti-Americanism concluded that only six per cent of Egyptians and 10 per cent of Pakistanis had favourable views of the US.
However, things changed dramatically following the election of Barack Obama as US president, particularly when he subsequently reached out to Muslim countries with a message of goodwill. Hopes at the time rose high in the Arab and Muslim world, climaxing after Obama's speech at Cairo University in 2009, which included verses taken from the Holy Quran.
Such hopes, however, have equally given way to frustration, with many people feeling that despite the messages of reconciliation nothing has happened on the ground. Indeed, there has been a gathering consensus in Muslim nations that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains an open wound and that without progress made towards healing it, or towards the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama's messages of goodwill will not achieve their aim of forging a new beginning in US relations with the Muslim and Arab world.
Many analysts would agree with Cairo University professor of political science Abdul- Monem Al-Mashat that the US's ambivalent policies towards public unrest in the Arab world and Middle East have meant a further blow to its image in the region.
"People judge the US according to its stance towards the public unrest sweeping the region, when especially in the cases of Egypt and Yemen the US has been seen as clearly hesitant," Al-Mashat told the Weekly. According to Al-Mashat, the US is apprehensive of change, which it thinks might lead to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Al-Qaeda in Yemen, and it is also keen to preserve its strategic interests in the region, most prominently the security of Israel.
The US has also come under fire for its silence on the massacres of demonstrators taking place in Syria, as well as for its negative stance towards public unrest in Bahrain and for not exerting pressure to topple the autocratic regime in Yemen. Such actions have been seen as contradicting ostensible US values and its claimed support for democracy and human rights.
According to Issandr El-Amrani, a writer on Middle East affairs who blogs at Arabist.com, "for a host of complicated reasons, ranging from domestic politics to the colonial legacy to the need for a stable oil-producing Middle East, the West has preferred to deal with tyrants whose behaviour was predictable and, at least most of the time, friendly."
The public has been able to grasp this, and, according to Al-Mashat, the US's final verbal support for the public uprising in Egypt did little to improve its image in the region. "It is engrained in the minds of the revolutionary masses in the Middle East that the US supports tyrants and is against democratic change in the Arab region," Al-Mashat told the Weekly. "The fact that the US supports Israel and is antagonistic to the Palestinians is disastrous for its image in the region."
In response, the US has tried to change its image in the Arab world, notably when the uprising broke out in Libya. However, once again it has not wanted to be seen to be on the side of the rebels, swiftly giving up its military role in the intervention in that country to NATO.
How US relations with the Arab states, and with Egypt in particular, will now develop remains an open question. The international community is watching the democratic changes taking place in the Middle East with apprehension, particularly the changes taking place in Egypt. In the latter country, the 25 January Revolution has given birth to a new Egypt, governed, for the first time, by the will of the people and with members of the mafia that ran the country for the last 30 years now in prison. Egypt's government now draws its legitimacy from the people, and the country's next president will have a popular mandate.
Political analyst and writer Gamil Mattar insists that now, for the first time, Egyptians have broken the legacy of fear and sense of subordination inculcated by the country's former regime. In addition, they no longer see "the United States as being a superpower that no one can challenge."
This mindset started during the rule of the late president Anwar El-Sadat and then reached unprecedented levels during the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak, Mattar says. During Mubarak's rule, "Egypt was turned into a US client, toeing the US line in the region," he said. "Egypt became a servant rather than a leader in the region, bowing to all US demands on issues pertaining to Iran, Lebanon's Hizbullah, Hamas and Gaza, and so on. The former president allowed the United States and Israel total hegemony over the region without any interference on Egypt's part."
The only thing that the former regime had resisted was US interference in Egypt's internal affairs, particularly on matters pertaining to democracy and human rights, Matter said. Otherwise, even on the economic level Egypt "applied the US ideology of a neo-liberal economy, abandoning social justice and the fair distribution of resources."
But that was in the past, Mattar says. "Today, people have regained their self- confidence, and at least on the theoretical level they feel able to challenge US hegemony."
It was for this reason, Mattar suggests, that there was so little mention of the US during the 25 January Revolution. The demonstrators may have felt that the change to a democratic regime in Egypt that would draw its legitimacy from the people would result in a new relationship with the United States in which the latter would also have to respect the people's wishes, he said.
As a result, there were no incidents of burning the US flag during the Revolution, and for the first time in many years few people objected to US aid or US interference in Libya. "This revolutionary change in mindset is a result of self- confidence and a sense of empowerment," Mattar said. "The 25 January Revolution taught the world that no one can beat the power of the people and that the new Egypt will no longer be controlled by a foreign country, no matter how strong, but will regain its leading role in the region."
The recent demonstrations in front of the Israeli embassy in Cairo in protest at Israeli violence against the Palestinians are perhaps one sign of that sense of empowerment. "For the first time, people are calling for an end to Camp David, or at least for questioning the Israeli commitment to the peace treaty," Mattar noted.
Like many others, El-Beheiri has pledged not to give his vote to "a presidential candidate who tries to get US support by condoning exports of gas to Israel or supporting the Zionist project in the region. The idea that the coming president should have US support, or be approved of by the States, is unacceptable," El-Beheiri added. "We, the people, should not allow this to happen."
El-Beheiri is not against good relations with the US. He only wishes that the present patron- client relationship, based on US aid to Egypt, should now come to an end and be replaced by diplomatic ties based on equality.
Yet, how far is Egypt ready for such parity, or a change in relations with the US, remains open to debate, with analysts predicting different scenarios for future US-Egyptian relations.
According to El-Amrani, activists are split between "two radically different versions of what relations with the West might look like." Referring to a meeting of activists he recently attended, he said that "one person, a prominent Islamist politician grizzled by years of imprisonment, delivered an almost caricatural diatribe against the West, blaming its support of the Mubarak regime on a need to suppress the Arab world." On the other side, "a young liberal activist hoped that a new page could be turned and believed that the West would learn from its mistakes and support a fledgling democracy."
For his part, El-Amrani rejects both scenarios, seeing them as either couched in "reflexive hostility" or as being simply "naive". Instead, El-Amrani says that "the West, and the United States in particular, will continue to prefer dealing with a friendly and predictable regime."
"The US will not take any great risks to ensure that the next government of Egypt is a democratic one, but it will try to nudge things in that direction where possible," El-Amrani wrote on Arabist.com. "This, at least, is what appears to be the attitude of the Obama administration towards Egypt. We need only look at Washington's tacit support for the repression of the uprising in Bahrain to know that, in different circumstances, things would be different."
For his part, Mattar holds that the United States only intervenes when intervention can serve its interests in the region. At least in the case of Egypt, some analysts hold that the United States will not be able to intervene in deciding on the coming president, since the elections, for the first time, will be genuinely democratic ones.
"Neither the United States nor any other country will be able to have a say on a president who is popular and is chosen by the people," Al-Mashat added. For Al-Mashat, the idea that the next president needs to receive US support is no more than "an illusion" and is one of the reasons why Arab presidents make concessions on foreign policy.
At least in the case of Egypt, there is almost a consensus among analysts that the moment has come for the next regime to build a more confident relationship with the West and one based on the new revolutionary spirit.
The country's next president and the regime of which he is a part "should first and foremost be aware of Egypt's strategic assets and of its resources and location. It should be aware of the fact that Egypt controls the Suez Canal, a strong labour force and a strong public will," Al-Mashat maintains. The next president, he said, "should be aware of the crucial role Egypt plays in maintaining the balance of power in the region."
Moreover, instead of focusing solely on strengthening diplomatic ties with the US, Egypt should instead aim to forge balanced relations with the rest of the world, including the European Union, China, Japan, Russia, as well as the United States. This kind of balance, Al-Mashat said, will help Egypt to regain its independence. "In this way, no country, no matter how strong, will be able to intervene in the policies of Egypt," he insisted.
El-Amrani is less optimistic and says that there is some way to go before Egyptian relations with the United States can change in this positive direction. The former regime, he said, had adopted a foreign policy for decades that "sought to defend a regime rather than advance the interests of a nation" and as a result became entangled "in a patron-client relationship" that will take time to change.
"To re-balance this relationship, hopefully so that Egypt can be more like Turkey, which has closer military ties to the United States (through NATO) but can afford to be more independent in its foreign policy (a good corrective to American hubris in recent years), will take time, careful planning and a clever reinvention of what Egyptian foreign policy stands for," El-Amrani wrote.
Whatever the case may turn out to be, for the United States to regain its popularity in the Middle East, a safety valve it has long been keen to maintain, it will have to work hard on its image in the region. And this cannot happen, many agree, unless it adopts a foreign policy that is at least neutral in the Arab-Israeli conflict and is not systematically biased towards Israel.
"The United States will prove to be the loser in the long run if it does not abandon its bias towards Israel," Al-Mashat said, adding that the US should "support, rather than act to suppress, democratic change in the Middle East. Only then will it receive public applause in the Arab region."