Alaa al Aswany
New York Times OpEd Feb. 9, 2009
President Obama is clearly trying to reach out to the Muslim world. I watched his Inaugural Address on television, and was most struck by the line: “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers.”
He gave his first televised interview from the White House to Al Arabiya, an Arabic-language television channel.
But have these efforts reached the streets of Cairo?
One would have expected them to. Obama had substantial support among Egyptians – more than any other American presidential candidate that I can remember.
I traveled to America several days before the election. The Egyptians I met in the United States told me – without exception – that they backed Obama. Many Egyptians I know went to his website and signed up as campaign supporters.
In Cairo, which is seven hours ahead of Washington, some people I know stayed up practically all night waiting for the election results.
When Obama won, newspapers here described Nubians – southerners whose dark skin stands out in Cairo – dancing in victory.
Our admiration for Obama is grounded in what he represents: fairness. He is the product of a just, democratic system that respects equal opportunity for education and work. This system allowed a black man, after centuries of racial discrimination, to become president.
This fairness is precisely what we are missing in Egypt.
That is why the image of President-elect Obama meeting with his predecessors in the White House was so touching. Here in Egypt, we don’t have previous or future presidents, only the present head of state who seized power through sham elections and keeps it by force, and who will probably remain in power until the end of his days. Accordingly, Egypt lacks a fair system that bases advancement on qualifications. Young people often get good jobs because they have connections. Ministers are not elected, but appointed by the president.
Not surprisingly, this inequitable system often leads young people to frustration or religious extremism. Others flee the country at any cost, hoping to find justice elsewhere.
We saw Obama as a symbol of this justice. We welcomed him with almost total enthusiasm until he underwent his first real test: Gaza. Even before he officially took office, we expected him to take a stand against Israel’s war on Gaza. We still hope that he will condemn, if only with simple words, this massacre that killed more than 1,300 Palestinians, many of them civilians. (I don’t know what you call it in other languages, but in Egypt we call this a massacre.)
We expected him to address the reports that the Israeli military illegally used white phosphorus against the people of Gaza. We also wanted Obama, who studied law and political science at the greatest American universities, to recognize what we see as a simple, essential truth: the right of people in an occupied territory to resist military occupation.
But Obama has been silent. So his brilliantly written Inaugural Speech did not leave a big impression on Egyptians. We had already begun to tune out. We were beginning to recognise how far the distance is between the great American values that Obama embodies, and what can actually be accomplished in a country where support for Israel seems to transcend human rights and international law.
Obama’s interview with Al Arabiya on Jan 27 was an event that was widely portrayed in the Western news media as an olive branch to the Muslim world.
But while most of my Egyptian friends knew about the interview, by then they were so frustrated by Obama’s silence that they weren’t particularly interested in watching it. I didn’t see it myself, but I went back and read the transcript. Again, his elegant words did not challenge America’s support of Israel, right or wrong, or its alliances with Arab dictators in the interest of pragmatism.
I then enlisted the help of my two teenage daughters, May and Nada, to guide me through the world of Egyptian blogs, where young Egyptian men and women can express themselves with relative freedom. There I found a combination of glowing enthusiasm for Obama, a comparison between the democratic system in America and the tyranny in Egypt, the expectation of a fairer American policy in the Middle East, and then severe disappointment after Obama’s failure to intercede in Gaza.
I thus concluded that no matter how many envoys, speeches or interviews Obama offers to us, he will not win the hearts and minds of Egyptians until he takes up the injustice in the Middle East. I imagine the same holds true for much of the greater Muslim world.
Have Egyptians irreversibly gone off Obama? No. Egyptians still think that this one-of-a-kind American president can do great things. Young Egyptians’ admiration for America is offset by frustration with American foreign policy.