When asked their opinion about America, most Egyptians will say they love Americans — many have met friendly American tourists and expatriates, or have relatives who have ventured to the United States and prospered. But in the same breath they will say they hate American policy in the Middle East — perhaps never more so than now.
The main source of their frustration is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. After two years of spiraling violence, Egyptians feel the Bush administration has done little to stop the blood-letting, and at the same time has supported Israel’s use of force against Palestinian civilians.
To many, the U.S. confrontation with Iraq is merely more evidence of a one-sided, blatantly anti-Muslim policy. Most people say war is unjustified and will only deepen Iraqi suffering. Why, they argue, should the United States strike Iraq on the hunch that it is developing nuclear weapons, while ignoring Israel’s nuclear arsenal?
While Egyptians have warm feelings about American people, and there was a tremendous outpouring of sympathy for the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, the public anger toward U.S. policy since then has put a serious strain on the Cairo’s relationship with Washington.
“The American image in the Middle East has reached its lowest ebb,” said political science professor Walid Kazziha. “The Arab regimes still friendly to the U.S. and owing their economic and physical security to the U.S. have to maintain good relations while trying to contain the frustrations of their own people. I believe there is a limit on how far the U.S. can stretch itself in the region and continue to have the support of Egypt and Saudi Arabia.”
Washington’s efforts to influence Arab public opinion haven’t helped. When the U.S. State Department raised concerns with Egypt about a historical drama that refers to an anti-Semitic document, Egypt insisted on airing the series. The controversial series, “Knight without a Horse,” has been sold to 26 other Arab stations.
When the United States pressured Egypt to release jailed Egyptian-American scholar and human rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the government refused, saying the nation’s judiciary is independent.
Analysts suggest President Hosni Mubarak has actually benefited from these public disagreements.
“By allegedly refusing to succumb to American-Israeli pressure, the government looks better and we are left to believe that we have achieved a victory of sorts,” wrote Salah Eissa, a newspaper editor.
Disillusionment with U.S. foreign policy has for many people undermined the image of American democracy. Even the fervor to emigrate to or visit the United States has diminished in the face of stiff new immigration and visa laws — and fears of discrimination.
“I visited the U.S.A. before Sept. 11. I was very happy to see (it) but now I do not want to visit,” said Trek Abdel Hamid, a 32-year-old auditor in Cairo. “I’m afraid of what will happen to me in the airport. ... When I traveled to the U.S. before I was looking for democracy, the dream. Now what will I look for?”
The growing frustration with the United States could destabilize governments like those in Egypt — moderate Arab regimes friendly to the United States.
“Once the U.S. crosses the line where it begins to erode the power base of these regimes by imposing demands in its efforts against terrorism or bringing the Palestinians to drink from Sharon’s well, these regimes will resist, and we have reached that point today, said Kazziha. “There is a crisis looming between the U.S. and Egypt and Saudi Arabia.”
War with Iraq would undermine moderate Arab regimes, observers say, and set a precedent of changing Arab regimes by force in the name of democracy. “Iraq will be the first step in making dramatic change in the map of this area,” said Hassan Abou Taleb, assistant director of the Al Ahram Strategic Center.
He contends that statements by U.S. officials suggest a hidden agenda to make changes under the rubric of democratization.
A war with Iraq could also devastate already stagnating economies of poor nations like Jordan and Egypt. “The first thing to happen would be economic collapse,” said Abou Taleb.
Added Kazziha: “Who would come here for tourism? How would Jordan survive such a blow?”
Mubarak has engaged in low-key diplomacy aimed at shoring up stability in the region, but sometimes his initiatives run counter to popular opinion. While most Arab journalists describe Palestinian suicide bombers as “martyrs,” Mubarak has sought a commitment from the militant Palestinian group Hamas to end suicide bombings.
On the recent anniversary of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin’s funeral, Mubarak addressed Israelis in a videotaped message at the site of Rabin’s 1995 assassination, acknowledging both Israeli and Palestinian security concerns.
“It is peace that will save the people of the region from the bombings that kill and injure innocent Israelis, from constant military attacks and oppression and sieges that hurt Palestinian civilians’ interests,” he said.
Mubarak maintains a delicate balance, but many believe an American-led war on Iraq would push him to the brink. Pictures of Iraqi dead and wounded and further economic hardship would only heighten Egyptian anger at the United States. In such a charged atmosphere, Mubarak may be forced to take a tougher stand toward Washington rather than risk the wrath of his own people.
NBC correspondent Charlene Gubash is based in Cairo, Egypt.