CAIRO – There is a local advertisement in the arrivals hall at Cairo International Airport. The ad shows a picture of Egypt's iconic Tahrir Square, packed during the revolution, with a quote from U.S. President Barack Obama: "We should raise our children to be like Egyptian youth.”
The quote from Obama was shortly after Egyptians had revolted and toppled long-time dictator and American ally Hosni Mubarak. The ad reflects a sense of pride Egyptians have about how they inspired the world, including the U.S. president. It also shows how a genuine acknowledgment from the U.S. goes a long way in Egypt.
But when it comes to their attitudes about America’s involvement in their country’s affairs, few Egyptians view the U.S. favorably, and or more importantly, with any trust.
U.S. seen as a meddler
Egypt's relationship with America goes back decades. But Egypt was cemented as a cornerstone of U.S. policy in the Middle East after its Camp David Peace Treaty with Israel. Following that, the U.S. bankrolled the Mubarak regime and the military that sustained the regime for 30 years.
That’s not lost on ordinary Egyptians. They may not know the intricacies of U.S. policy in Egypt, but intuitively they know that the U.S. backed and legitimized the man who oppressed them for three decades.
So it should come as no surprise that most Egyptians view U.S. involvement in Egypt negatively.
A recent Gallup poll found 81 percent of Egyptians oppose American aid to political groups. And 84 percent of Egyptians surveyed doubt the U.S. is serious about spreading democracy in the region. The overwhelming majority of Egyptians reject both U.S. aid to civil society organizations and economic assistance to the country as a whole. They see U.S. aid as instruments used to manipulate Egypt’s domestic and foreign policies.
Alaa El Din Mohamed, a 34-year-old taxi driver, summed up his current views on the U.S.
“We are looking out for our country’s interests. For Egypt's interests we want stability, we want to work, we want to advance forward. We don't have any problems with the U.S., but we're just interested in our own country,” he said. “We want to be able to stand on our own two feet. We want to look forward and then afterwards we can think about the U.S.”
And yet, despite the negative attitude, the U.S. as a country and Americans as a people remain symbols of democracy, freedom and modernity in the eyes of many ordinary Egyptians.
“The U.S. is a developed, advanced country and organized. Everything there is civilized that's what comes to my mind in regards to the U.S.,” Hala Abdel Rahman, a 50-year-old housewife, said when asked about her impressions of the country. “We would hope and wish that Egypt can become a developed country like the U.S.”
Many Egyptians are still drawn to the idea of the U.S. as the “land of opportunity” with thousands going there yearly to pursue educational opportunities and seek a better life.
Living in America still resonates loudly with Egyptians who believe most Americans enjoy a decent quality of life. In fact, many here draw a distinction between Americans and American foreign policy.
“America as a people and stuff are really good people, they have values and are good people,” said Mohamed, the cab driver. “But the most important thing is they don’t interfere in our country.”
Feeling let down by Obama
During the Egyptian revolution, I remember seeing a poster in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that read, “Yes We Can, Too,” playing off of Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign slogan that change is possible.
Today, many people in Egypt feel let down by Obama who they believe was slow to respond to the Egyptian people’s own calls for change during the revolution. Others believe Obama hasn’t followed through on his promise to change how the U.S. deals with the Middle East – from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Iran.
Mona Bayoumi, a 25-year-old administrator a Cairo arts college, believes there is a gap between what the U.S. promises and what it does.
“At the beginning when President Obama first came, we had a lot of hope that things would improve and be fixed – especially with Iraq and Iran,” said Bayoumi. “But we waited for something to happen and we didn't see anything...To be honest nothing that we expected to happen happened and nothing that we wanted happened.”
In a country of 85 million people, gauging the public’s attitudes is always a challenge.
But the underlying principle in how Egyptians view the U.S. is simple. After decades of being on the receiving end of U.S. foreign policy that arguably didn’t improve the quality of their lives, nor advance their own interests, Egyptians want to chart their own future with as little help from Washington as possible.
Whether the U.S. lets them is a whole different question.
This story is part of a series by msnbc.com and NBC News "What the World Thinks of US". The series aims to check the pulse on current perceptions of America's global stature during the election year and ahead of our annual Independence Day.
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