Sunday,24 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1123, 22-28 November 2012-
Sunday,24 February, 2019
Issue 1123, 22-28 November 2012-

Ahram Weekly

When words are not enough

Although US President Barack Obama’s rhetoric has lent him worldwide popularity, it has failed to defuse anti-US sentiments in the Arab and Muslim worlds,
says Gihan Shahine

Al-Ahram Weekly

In a relatively quiet side street of Cairo, the heavily-secured façade of the US embassy stands in solemn defiance of the violence that took place in its vicinity last September.
The Cairo embassy, once a magnet for those hoping to enjoy the American dream, people queuing apparently endlessly in the hope of getting an American visa, was the target of heavy attacks in which the American flag was burnt only a few weeks ago.
Today’s calm ambiance and the clear skies above the embassy can hardly dispel the images of clouds of tear gas shrouding violent protests sparked by outrage at an anti-Islam film made in the United States and posted on YouTube.
However, as much as those images delivered a message of hate for the United States, many of the protesters insisted they did not hate the American people.

‘WE HATE AMERICAN POLICIES, BUT NOT THE AMERICAN PEOPLE’: Instead, they said they were concerned to pour out their anger against US policies, which they said were “biased towards Israel”, “self-interested” and “seeking hegemony” over Egypt and the Middle East.
Protesters interviewed by Al-Ahram Weekly also expressed their frustration at the recent wave of bigotry and disrespect for Islam and Muslims in the West. “The demonstrations were not meant to turn violent,” said 26-year-old Mahmoud Al-Sayed, a Salafi businessman.
Al-Sayed said he had travelled all the way from Aswan to Cairo with the aim of peacefully protesting in front of the US embassy in defence of Islam’s prophet. However, he had few illusions that the protests would change US policies.
“I just thought it was the only civil way to express my anger, especially since I knew the Egyptian government would not take any action other than rejecting and denouncing the anti-Islam film,” Al-Sayed said.
Al-Sayed does not regret the fact that some demonstrators burnt the US flag as a symbol of rejection of US policies. However, he was sorry that “some violent intruders” had turned the demonstration into a clash with the security forces, leaving hundreds injured.
“Attacking embassies and killing people are forbidden by religion,” Al-Sayed said. “Yes, we do hate US policies, but not the American people.”
He also expressed his deep frustration at US policies in the region and what he said was “the warming relationship between the current [Egyptian] regime and the United States and Israel”.
“I was hoping that in post-revolutionary Egypt we would have more freedom of expression and that we would feel more empowered to end our subservience to the United States,” he said. “But unfortunately this has not been the case.”
For Al-Sayed, Egypt’s subservient relationship to the United States did not end under the new regime, which, he insists, “still toes the line of the old regime’s policies”.
“The Muslim Brotherhood always protested against US policies and Israeli crimes [before its ascendancy to power], but now we can see that these were no more than past slogans,” a frustrated Al-Sayed complained. “After all, the United States would not have allowed an Islamist to become president of Egypt unless it knew he would pursue policies that were friendly to its interests in the region.”

A TOMATO-FLAVOURED VISIT: Al-Sayed is not the only one thinking in this way.
Anti-US sentiments were similarly reflected in the 14 July diplomatic visit of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Egypt, which was anything but plain sailing.
Thousands of protesters immediately flocked to gather in front of the US embassy in Cairo while Clinton was meeting President Mohamed Morsi on the first day of her visit. Her second-day visit to Alexandria did not fare much better as angry protesters pelted Clinton’s motorcade with tomatoes and chanted anti-US slogans denouncing the visit.
The protesters blamed the United States for the election of Egypt’s first freely-elected president, Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist who belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood. They held up anti-US placards with slogans like, “Stop the US funding of the Muslim Brotherhood” in protest at what they saw as warming relations between the US and the Brothers.
Although the US has long been blamed for having supported dictators in the Arab world as a result of fears of the rise of political Islam, many in Egypt’s secularist, leftist and Coptic circles also blame the United States for the new ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Rumour has it that the Americans helped rig the presidential elections in favour of Morsi against his rival Ahmed Shafik, a military man who served as the last prime minister under the former regime before former president Hosni Mubarak was ousted by the 25 January Revolution.
However, Clinton told journalists during her Alexandria visit that “the United States is not in the business in Egypt of choosing winners and losers, even if we could, which of course we cannot.”
But many remained unconvinced, and several secularist and Christian political activists refused to meet Clinton in protest at what they claimed was a US-Brotherhood honeymoon in the country.
Emad Gad, a prominent member of the Social Democratic Party, turned down Clinton’s invitation to meet in protest at what he saw as US interference in Egypt’s internal affairs.
“America only cares about its foreign policy in the region,” Gad told the Washington Post at the time. “It does not care about human rights, freedom or equality in Egyptian society.”

ANTI-AMERICANISM BACK IN THE LIMELIGHT: The tsunami of anger that swept many Arab and Muslim countries in reaction to the US-made anti-Islam film The Innocence of Muslims last September was widely seen by Western pundits as one alarming indication that anti-Americanism remains high in many Middle Eastern countries.
The film sparked massive protests around the world, leaving the US ambassador to Libya dead and the US flag burnt in front of the US embassy in Cairo.
While the violence soon subsided, with many in Muslim-majority countries even feeling apologetic about it, the question of why anti-Americanism, which reached an unprecedented peak during the period of former US president George W Bush, remains high is back to the fore.
Although one of President Barack Obama’s priorities following his election four years ago was to bridge the gap with the Muslim and Arab worlds, the September protests, as well as a number of events and recent polls, indicate that the image of the United States in the region has not much improved, with anti-Americanism remaining high in much of the Arab and Muslim worlds.
“Although Egyptian approval of the US leadership has been fairly steady since 2010, with fewer than one in five expressing positive views, Egyptians’ views of American intentions have worsened over the past year,” warned Dalia Mogahed, director of the US-based Gallup Centre for Muslim Studies and a member of president Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighbourhood Partnerships.
Mogahed’s conclusion was based on a recent Gallup survey, which found that 82 per cent of Egyptians opposed US economic aid on the grounds that it was used as a tool on the part of the US administration to interfere in Egypt’s internal affairs.

“WAIT, YOU STILL DON’T LIKE US?” This was the title of an article by the associate director of the Pew Global Attitudes Project, Richard Wike, which painted a bleak picture of US popularity in many Muslim-majority countries.
Based on Pew survey figures, the article concluded that although President Obama was receiving more favourable ratings than his predecessor, “the Muslim world has not warmed toward the US over the past four years” during Obama’s first term in office.
In Egypt, for instance, Pew surveys have shown that America’s image remains almost what it was four years ago, with 19 per cent holding a favourable opinion of the US in 2012, a slight reduction from the 22 per cent of those expressing the same views four years ago.
Among Pakistanis and Jordanians, America’s already poor ratings have declined further since 2008: in both countries, 19 per cent held a positive view of the US four years ago, compared with just 12 per cent in 2012, according to Wike.
A Pew opinion poll conducted in June, however, found that Tunisians were divided in their views of the United States. Overall, they were split evenly between those with a favourable view of the US (45 per cent) and those with an unfavourable view (45 per cent).
“But the picture is different in Pakistan, where 74 per cent consider the US as an enemy, and in Yemen, recipient of more American humanitarian assistance than any other country, where anti-Americanism is rife,” said Wike.

A MILLENNIUM WAVE OF ANTI-AMERICANISM: Yet, anti-Americanism is not new to the Arab and Islamic worlds.
A strong wave of anti-Americanism swept the Middle East after the outbreak of the Palestinian Intifada in September 2000 in protest at US policies in the region and its perceived bias towards Israel. Anti-US sentiments then reached a peak in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, when, according to a Pew survey, only six per cent of Egyptians and 10 per cent of Pakistanis had favourable views of the US.
Burning the American flag became a common practice at public rallies and demonstrations across Egypt at the time, when tens of thousands of protesters chanted anti-US slogans and many joined a massive public initiative to boycott American products, which reportedly harmed some American interests in the region.
When Obama was first elected US president four years ago, anti-American sentiments seemed to ebb, though not for long. Hopes rose among the Muslim and Arab nations following Obama’s famous 2009 Cairo Speech, which was intended to forge a new beginning with the Muslim world.
Such hopes, however, soon gave way to frustration, with many people feeling that despite the messages of reconciliation nothing had changed on the ground.

THE ARAB SPRING: AUTUMN OF US POPULARITY? Many analysts also agree that the way the US dealt with the political unrest in the Arab Spring countries dealt a further blow to its image in the region.
Especially in the cases of Egypt and Yemen, many agree that the US was at best hesitant regarding the revolutionary movements, if not supportive of the former autocratic regimes.
At the outset of the 25 January Revolution in Egypt, for instance, US Secretary of State Hillary 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.”
Many analysts agree with Amr Hashim Rabie of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, who said that the United States was apprehensive of change, which it expected could lead to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and perhaps of Al-Qaeda in Yemen.
“The United States preferred to deal with autocratic regimes rather than to promote a democracy that could lead to the ascendancy of Islamists,” Rabie told the Weekly.
Issandr Al-Amrani, an expert on Middle East affairs, concurs. “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,” he wrote on a blog posted on
The US also came under fire for its silence on the massacres of the demonstrators in Syria, which Rabie speculates is intended to serve Israeli interests in the region, as well as for its negative stance towards the unrest in Bahrain. Such actions on the part of the US have been seen as contradicting ostensible US values and its claimed support for democracy and human rights.
“The fact that the United States is not interfering to stop the massacres of the Syrian rebels, which have thus far claimed the lives of about 350,000 martyrs, while it had earlier interfered in support of the Libyan uprising, where it has oil interests, is added proof that the US is only defending its interests in the region and definitely not the values of democracy and human rights,” columnist Suleiman Gouda wrote in the Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm.
The consensus among Arab analysts and nations on America’s self-interested policies, intended primarily to guarantee the security of Israel, persisted even after the US’s final verbal support for the uprisings in the Arab Spring countries.
“The United States did not support the 25 January Revolution except when it felt that the protesting masses were ultimately gaining the upper hand,” Rabie said.
A recent Pew survey reflected this public mistrust of US policies towards the Arab Spring revolutions, saying that “the American president gets more negative than positive reviews for how he is handling the political changes sweeping through the Middle East.”
According to the survey, “52 per cent disapprove of how Obama is dealing with the calls for political change in nations such as Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Libya,” and that “a plurality of those who disapprove say Obama has shown too little support for those who are calling for change.”
When asked 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) wanted closer ties with the US, while 43 per cent preferred a more distant relationship, and 40 per cent wanted the relationship between the two countries to remain about as close as it has been in recent years, according to Pew.
“Israel fares even more poorly,” wrote the survey’s authors. “By a 54 per cent to 36 per cent margin, Egyptians want the peace treaty with that country annulled.”
That said, another survey by Gallup conducted last September found that Egyptians were twice as likely to oppose US aid as peace with Israel.
“Egyptians are roughly split on whether Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel is a good thing or a bad thing for their country,” Mogahed said. “But they oppose [82 per cent] the US economic aid to their country that the historical peace accord paved the way for.”
According to Mogahed, “Egyptian rejection of American aid has grown steadily over the transition period from 40 per cent favouring assistance and 52 per cent opposing it in April 2011 to 15 per cent favouring the package and 82 per cent opposing it a year later.”
Today, the Gallup survey warns that public mistrust of US policies has generally increased over the past year. A majority of 83 per cent of Egyptians believe that the US will not allow people in the region to fashion their own political future as they see fit, compared to 68 per cent who thought the same in April 2011, according to the survey.

THE US AND POLITICAL ISLAM: Suspicions of US policies are perhaps gaining a new height with the coming of the Islamists to power in many Arab Spring countries.
Research suggests that waves of anti-Americanism in the Arab and Muslim worlds rise and ebb according to the intensity of the domestic political competition between such countries’ Islamist and secular powers.
Political scientists Lisa Blaydes and Drew Linzer are among those believing that “anti-American sentiment is primarily concocted by political elites who try to ideologically ‘outbid’ each other in their quest for votes.”
“Where the struggle for political control between these two groups escalates, elites of both types have incentives to ramp up anti-American appeals to boost mass support,” they said.
Egypt is perhaps a good example of how the deepening polarisation between the Islamists and secularists has helped maintain anti-American sentiments at relatively high levels.
When it was a banned group under the former Mubarak regime, the Muslim Brotherhood always positioned itself as a prime opponent of US policies in the region and a prime supporter of the Palestinian cause. Today, after the Brotherhood’s ascendancy to power, secularists and leftists are attacking the group, saying that it is bowing to the US in order to gain its support.
Today’s most-popular conspiracy theory among secularists, and perhaps also among some members of Egypt’s ultra-conservative Salafi groups, suggests that the US has adapted its policies in such a way as to support the rise of political Islam in the Middle East, perhaps in the hope of creating deep divides and sectarian rifts that would ultimately serve Western colonial interests in the region.
“Following many attempts to curtail the rise of political Islam, whether in Sudan, Palestine and/or Algeria, the West seems to have reconciled some of its policies with the assumption that this phenomenon is here to stay,” wrote Hisham H Ahmed, a Palestinian-American scholar in Middle East politics and the Islamist movements, in an article entitled “The Arab Spring, the West and Political Islam”.
According to Cairo University professor and political analyst Mahmoud Khalil, the United States already had historical relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and it was already prepared for its ascendancy to power.
“It is noteworthy that the United States does not support the rise of political Islam in general,” Khalil said. “Rather, the US backed the Islamist group it already had historical relations with, namely the Brotherhood. It is a well-known fact that the US administration has been actively exchanging visits with Brotherhood members since the 1970s.”
One reason analysts give in support of their views is that the United States, and perhaps the West in general, have come to realise that supporting the relatively moderate Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood could help counteract the radical version represented by Al-Qaeda.
Ahmed and Khalil would not rule out the possibility that the United States has tactically allowed the Brotherhood to come to power in order to play Islamist groups off against each other and to further weaken and divide the Arab world on sectarian and ideological grounds.
Ahmed refers to the examples of Palestine and Sudan as cases where the West has already played a role “in bringing about divisions and disharmony, whether between the West Bank and Gaza, or, in the case of Sudan, Darfour and South Sudan”.
“At the same time, Western-led campaigns for protecting the rights of minorities are feared to deepen existing divisions, in Egypt, for example, between Muslims and the Christian Copts,” Ahmed added.
In the meantime, far-right groups and neo-cons in the US have been using the rise of political Islam in the Middle East as a way of further promoting their ideas of a “clash of civilisations”, which attempts to portray Islam as an enemy to the West.
“This is a time when attempts to divert people’s attention in the West from underlying hardships are at their strongest. Playing the card of Islamist dangers is expected to achieve this objective, many Arabs fear,” Ahmed wrote.
Even now that the Democrats have managed to remain at the helm of the US administration, the consensus remains that US policymakers will tirelessly attempt to condition their relations with the new Islamist Arab systems “on various social, political and ideological conditions, whether in regard to personal freedoms, policies concerning ‘radical’ Islamic groups, and/or relations with Israel,” according to Ahmed.
During his election campaign, President Obama made it clear that while he supported Egypt’s transition to democracy, he also demanded that its new government “take responsibility for protecting religious minorities, and recognise the rights of all of them, which is critical throughout the region”.
Obama also insisted that the new governments in the Arab Spring countries would have to cooperative with the United States “when it comes to counterterrorism”.
Obama made it clear during his presidential campaign that the peace treaty between Cairo and Tel Aviv was “a red line” for the United States “because not only is Israel’s security at stake, but our security is at stake if that unravels.”

HISTORICAL REASONS FOR ANTI-AMERICANISM: Nothing has perhaps been more damaging to the US image in the Arab and Muslim nations than its long-standing pro-Israeli bias in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, not to mention the US-led invasion of Iraq, the US handling of the war in Afghanistan, and the War on Terror, which increasingly relies on drone strikes to target extremists.
A recent Pew survey found that about nine out of every 10 people in Egypt and Jordan, eight out of 10 in Turkey and seven out of 10 in Tunisia opposed the use of drone strikes by the US.
A majority of Muslims also view the US War on Terror as a pretext for a war against Islam. Surveys by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) conducted between 2006 and 2007 found that no more than two out of 10 people in Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan and Indonesia felt that the US War on Terror was aimed at protecting the US against terrorist attacks.
Majorities in all these countries thought it was meant either to weaken and divide the Islamic religion and people, or to achieve political and military domination and control Middle Eastern resources.
Wike summed things up this way: “America is still seen as ignoring the interests of other countries. Few think Obama has been even-handed in dealing with the Israelis and the Palestinians. And the current administration’s increased reliance on drone strikes to target extremists is overwhelmingly unpopular.”
The recent demonstrations against the US-made anti-Islam film also revealed that Muslims needed to be treated with respect and that American attacks on Islamic symbols were harmful for the US image in the region.
A recent poll by Abu Dhabi’s Gallup Centre revealed that seven out of every 10 Muslims felt that Western efforts to abstain from desecrating the Quran and Muslim religious symbols would be “very meaningful” to them.

WHAT WENT WRONG? Towards the end of the Bush presidency in the US, there were calls among many policy-makers for the US to improve its image, which had been heavily damaged worldwide.
The US has always been keen on monitoring its popularity, especially in the Middle East, where the passion for US elements of soft power, including culture, cinema, lifestyle and technology to name a few, have long served as a safety valve to curb the growth of hostility towards US policies in the region.
“The Democrats were ready with a plan,” said Deepa Kumor, author of Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire.
“A leadership group on US-Muslim relations headed by Madeleine Albright [former US president Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, who presided over the era of US ‘humanitarian imperialism’ in the 1990s] put out a document that argued that the Bush rhetoric of the ‘clash of civilisations’ was too harsh, and that the next US president needed to reject this thesis and start to patch things up with the Middle East,” Kumor said in an interview with, a news website on American foreign policy in the Middle East.
Obama made remarkable headway on the rhetorical level, toning down the harsh language of his predecessor.  
Not only was Obama the first US president to acknowledge the presence of American Muslims in his inaugural speech, but his famous Cairo speech in 2009, which showed an unprecedented respect for Islam and Islamic culture, was also considered a major leap in a US policy shift towards the use of soft power and attempts at winning hearts and minds in the region.
“But even while Obama has toned down the rhetoric from the Bush era, he hasn’t rejected Bush’s policies,” Kumor wrote.
Many might agree with him that “Obama has actually adopted Bush’s second-term policy goals both externally and internally,” in the sense that “he is pursuing the goals of US imperialism, using a soft language that has effectively replaced Bush’s harsh terms of the ‘clash of civilisations’ with talk of ‘mutual respect’.”
There is almost a consensus in the Arab and Muslim worlds that, like his predecessors, Obama has adopted foreign policies that act wholly in the interests of the US. Extending the war in Afghanistan to Pakistan, dramatically increasing the number of US drone strikes (and extending their use in Yemen and Somalia), and participating in the NATO-led war on Libya are only cases in point.
Today, the increasing unpopularity of American hard power has perhaps dangerously extended to elements of American soft power, the traditional safety valve.
According to Wike, predominantly Muslim nations are among the least likely to embrace US popular culture or value the spread of American ideas and customs.
“Only 36 per cent of Egyptians like American music, movies, and television, and just 11 per cent believe it is good that US ideas and customs are spreading to their country,” according to Pew surveys.

HOPES DIM: Although Obama’s winning a second term as president was received with relief in the Arab and Muslim world, where people were apprehensive that his Republican competitor, Mitt Romney, could bring back the bad old days of the far-right policies of Bush, there seems to be little hope that anything will change on the international stage.
“The very fact that the Americans gave Obama a second term in the presidency is in itself yet further proof that Obama has made considerable success in achieving Zionist aims and US imperialistic plans in the Middle East,” said Mohamed Suleiman, a member of the political bureau of the Nasserist Karama Party.
The Islamists are not more optimistic. “We know for a fact that American foreign policies in the region will not change with a change of the president at the helm,” said Adel Afifi, chair of the Salafi Asala Party.
Essam Al-Erian, deputy chair of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, similarly insisted that “Egyptians should be self-dependent,” since US policies towards the Arabs and the Middle East will remain unchanged.
“President Obama has indeed shown respect for Islam and Muslims, but sorry, kind words are not enough,” Al-Sayed insisted.
A gathering consensus remains in Muslim nations that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains an open wound and that without progress made towards healing it, Obama’s messages of goodwill will not achieve their aim of forging a new beginning in US relations with the Muslim and Arab worlds.

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