Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
25 Nov. - 1 Dec. 1999
Issue No. 457
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

When in Rome, speak Italian

By Abdel-Azim Hammad

Although the brief diplomatic altercation between the US and Egypt over who would lead the investigation into the EgyptAir 990 crash was quickly contained, it must be seen, in the final analysis, as yet another episode in on-going cycle of crises in Egyptian-US relations. The origins of this cycle may be found in each side's failure to comprehend the political processes, cultural traits and psychological constitutions of the other. US officials prefer to see this misunderstanding as reflecting the different ways in which the sole international superpower and a major regional power interpret their national interests.

As we now know, the crisis surrounding the crash was caused by reckless haste on the part of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The NTSB, as its Chairman James Hall later admitted, was premature in concluding that the airplane's co-pilot had committed suicide. It was also premature in the leaking to the powerful US media of its interpretation of the prayer that can be heard on the cockpit voice recorder, and in its decision, on the basis of this interpretation, to hand over the investigation to the FBI. Due to political pressure, the NTSB continues to head the investigation into the crash. Two NTSB officials have been charged with elaborating the suicide hypothesis and leaking it to the press.

Ruling out, then, the likelihood of a conspiracy to cast the blame for the disaster on the weakest links in the chain of likely causes -- the pilot, the plane and air control -- there still remains the charge of prejudice. The gut reactions that prompted the NTSB officials' hasty interpretation are suspect; one may also question their persistent reluctance to consult more informed experts on Arab and Islamic culture before rushing to a pronouncement. Certainly, there are many such experts, not only among the members of the Egyptian team investigating the accident, but also in Arabic language and comparative religions departments in universities across the US, not to mention the Egyptian and Arab diplomatic corps stationed in Washington. The existence of prejudice was established conclusively when US officials admitted that such experts should indeed have been consulted.

These failures hardly constitute a deliberate conspiracy. They are, however, indicative of a propensity to bias at the heart of the American attitude towards Egypt and the Arabs, and indeed towards most issues. Deeply ingrained in the fabric of American public opinion and political and economic institutions are various forms of racism, against African Americans above all, but also against Catholics, Jews, Hispanic Americans, Japanese Americans and other ethnic groups. Even that supposed paragon of impartiality, the judicial system, is not immune to this shortcoming. Ethnic biases also shape the attitudes of US politicians and the media towards China, Japan or the Arab world, for example. It is difficult to forget the wave of anti-Chinese rage that erupted when the US accused China of nuclear espionage. The incident degenerated into a witch-hunt that almost caused an American university professor of Chinese origin to lose his job, on the charge of heading a scientific espionage network based in Beijing. The charge had not been investigated; it was later proven false.

It is simplistic to point the finger at the White House or the Congress for the anti-Chinese flare-up in the US, however. The Clinton administration, with the support of many members of Congress, favoured opening up to China, and may have overlooked transgressions committed by the Chinese government. These, in turn, were seized upon by those members of Congress and federal government who opposed the Clinton policy, and who fed the anti-Chinese mania in order to further their own ends. This situation illustrates the fact that the workings of US policy are far more complex than we are generally given to believe. They are the product of intricate rivalries within and between the various agencies of government, but also among the panoply of lobbies and pressure groups vying for a say in the formulation of US legislation and policy.

It does us little good, therefore, simply to grumble about anti-Egyptian or anti-Arab prejudice, or, conversely, to sit back and wait for it to go away. Rather, we must approach the problem the American way, as do China, Japan, North and South Korea, not to mention Israel and the European countries, with varying degrees of success. Chinese officials, for example, recognise that it is pointless to seek to counter anti-Chinese hysteria in the US head on. Instead, they seek to establish mechanisms that will strengthen understanding and cooperation with those forces in the US that support cooperation with China, while expand their base of support among the US public.

In a similar vein, in the crisis over the investigations into the EgyptAir crash, Egyptian officials should have sought more active involvement from the outset in determining investigative procedures, analysing the findings and addressing the media. Unfortunately, US officials had direct access to the media; the Egyptians did not. No restrictions were imposed upon our access to the media; the fault, here, is ours alone. Whether because of ingrained bureaucratic habits or for other reasons, we immediately yielded to a pernicious instinct to put the lid on media coverage by hastening to deny any negligence on the part of EgyptAir, even before the black boxes were recovered.

Of course, this reaction played right into the hands of anti-Egyptian and anti-Arab forces, enabling them to obtain from the NTSB information they knew would be potentially detrimental to Egypt, and to tell the press all about it. Perhaps, too, it enabled these forces to influence opinion within the NTSB, leading it to a premature conclusion detrimental to Egypt.

Particularly germane to the mechanisms of anti-Arab and anti-Egyptian prejudice in the US is a story related to me by a colleague who recently returned from Washington. This colleague was one of 10 journalists representing 10 nations, including Indonesia and Pakistan, who had been invited to a luncheon at the New York Times. The spokesman for the American newspaper asked each of the guests to relate the events that most occupy public opinion in their country. When my colleague's turn came, he began to speak about the recent cabinet reshuffle in Egypt. The American journalist interrupted him with a question about the rights of Egyptian women. My colleague observed that he was the only guest to be asked a question out of context. Certainly, the Pakistani journalist, in whose country the status of women is far worse than it is in Egypt, was not asked such a question. In all events, my Egyptian colleague answered his host's question. He explained the rights and privileges accorded to women under Egyptian law, such as the woman's right to the marital home upon divorce should she have children. Again his host interrupted him, this time with a caustic remark: "Then every woman in the world must want to be Egyptian."

Anti-Egyptian prejudices, therefore, exist within various influential circles in the US. However, because of our tendency to perceive US policy-making as restricted to the White House, the State Department and Congress, we find ourselves unable to counter these prejudices and adequately advocate our opinions and causes. Even within the narrow scope of these institutions, we have yet to develop a framework for the principles we would like to govern our relations, or the mechanisms for resolving differences that are bound to emerge over the Middle East and Africa.

The US is not at fault for the political mechanisms that gave rise to Egyptian shortcomings in dealing with the EgyptAir investigation. Nor, however, are we at fault if they misunderstand our culture and psychology.

Admittedly, the US has shown encouraging signs of a desire to reach a better understanding of Arab and Islamic culture. Last year President Clinton appealed to US public opinion to view Islam as an international religion that fosters tolerance, peaceful coexistence and other humanitarian values. Significantly, during the recent airplane investigation, a Catholic clergyman declared that the expression "Tawakkaltu 'ala Allah" (I have placed my trust in God), uttered by the EgyptAir co-pilot before the crash, is equivalent to the Catholic Hail Mary, used as a supplication in times of distress. Sadly, however, the clergyman's voice of reason was lost in the din generated by decades of ignorance, prejudice and sensationalist distortion. Moreover, the fact that American analysts of the black box recordings did not know that religious expressions also pepper the everyday speech of Christians in the Arab world is indicative of a wider American-European ethnocentrism.

The premature findings of NTSB investigations into the ill-fated EgyptAir flight have given rise to numerous conjectures in the Arab media and in Europe. Some suggest that Boeing is seeking to suppress any evidence of technical failure as the cause of the crash. Others believe that the US, the self-proclaimed leader of the global fight against terrorism, wants to eliminate any suspicion of sabotage because that would suggest shortcomings in American airport security systems and would encumber the US budget with compensation costs. Still others suggest that the US government is eager to cast the blame for the crash on the pilots because any suspicion of deliberate sabotage would force it to seek the perpetrators, as was the case with the PanAm flight that exploded over Lockerbie. This, in turn, could escalate, forcing the US to impose sanctions on a party that Washington cannot, and does not wish, to punish.

Perhaps none of these conjectures are valid, even in part. The fact that these and even wilder theories have surfaced underscores the need to improve our understanding and methods of dealing with the intricacies of the American political process. In short, we have to be more dynamic and quicker to act. When in Rome, do as the Romans do; we must use a language the Americans understand if we are to defend our vital interests and fundamental rights, generate greater awareness of Egyptian and Arab culture in the US and prevail against double standards in the application of US policy. To do so, however, we must acquire a thorough familiarity with what the Romans actually do.

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