Yes He Can! Insha’Aallah, Yes He Will!
By S. Abdallah Schleifer
Obama is coming to Cairo! What a refreshing change! I’m not just referring to the rather extraordinary popular mood in streets noted in the more recent past for an anti-US stance. Part of the refreshing change is in my email inbox.
Instead of the usual flood of mail from the endearing rich widows in Sierra Leon and generous bank executives in London offering to share millions of unclaimed funds with me, I am now getting any number of newspaper columns, blogs, editorials all advising Obama on what to say to the Muslim world tomorrow, ranging from pro-Israeli flaks warning him what a grievous error it is to try and court the Arab world which only respects the iron fist (as if that iron fist, especially an Israeli iron fist has ever accomplished anything else in the region than undermining moderates and fostering a hatred that has always fed Arab extremism), to Open Letters and a Washington Post editorial more or less demanding that President Obama confront his host President Mubarak over the issue of democracy and human rights, a pressing issue to many of my friends — intellectuals, lawyers, students and journalists here and abroad — but by no means anywhere near the concerns of the broader Egyptian public which craves jobs, lower food prices and peace, according to a recent Video Cairo Sat poll.
The closest I can recall to such mass enthusiasm here for an American President was the utter joy at the time of Nixon’s visit to Cairo in 1974 which should, at least for those old enough to remember the atmosphere, confound any conventionally left-swing analysis of the Egyptian masses.
Mind you, Nixon was about to be impeached, his standing in America at a terrible low, but that was irrelevant here if even known. In Cairo Nixon was the largely undeserving beneficiary of popular enthusiasm — the Egyptian army had redeemed national honor only months earlier, storming across the Suez Canal to raise the flag over the Bar Lev Line and Israeli prisoners taken during the first spectacular days of that war actually paraded through the streets.
Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s man in the Middle East, had secured an Israeli pull back along the canal; the Soviets (with their very bad street rep for tipping poorly, along with their presumed atheism) had been expelled by Sadat and now the prosperous, successful Americans, obviously impressed by Egyptian valor and the possibilities of economic opportunity which seemed so vast back then, would put an end to this miserable Arab-Israeli conflict in which so many Egyptian lives had been lost in the wars of 1948,1956,1967 and 1974. What seemed to be just around the corner — an Arab-Israeli peace settlement, and instant prosperity — a chicken in every pot of mulukheyia, and a Fiat Nasr on every sidewalk (in lieu of garages.)
I had flown in from Beirut to produce NBC News coverage of the Kissinger Shuttle, which for Egypt’s (and America’s) MTV-video clip generation, must sound like some sort of obscure Jewish variant of hip hop. But in fact the mood here was so ecstatic and the freedom to report so total, that I quickly canceled plans to leave the region for a field producer’s post at the London bureau and instead accepted a standing offer to reopen the long shuttered offices of NBC News Cairo.
Of course it was all a terrible misreading that would result, along with many other disappointments, in disillusionment over the long years that followed and in much more recent years a deep dislike, in the increasingly depression-flavored streets of the city, for the American government, and its Middle East policies in general and for George W. Bush in particular.
But aside from popular enthusiasm, more than matched in the local press (which is not overwhelmingly the case today among some of the commentators in the independent media), there is simply no comparison.
Nixon was trolling in the pits of unpopularity back in the states, while Obama arrives in the wake of a magnificent election victory and poll ratings that remain as high or are even higher than his election margin. Nixon was beneficiary of circumstance, Obama so far (and so shortly into the game) is the master of circumstance.
He has earned his popularity by a decisive, clearly expressed and certainly manifest commitment to thoroughly revamp America’s relationship with the Muslim world; he has pledged repeatedly to turn the page in US-Arab/Muslim world relations which confounded so many of his, yes, Arab-American as well as Arab media critics during the campaign and in the two months prior to inauguration: critics who had been bemoaning his appointments as betrayals, his invocations of the standard American mantras about the deep unbendable ties between Israel and America, and distancing himself from American Muslims during the campaign. His critics sounded almost oblivious to American political realities — and to the $50 million or more smear campaign then underway to turn the critical Jewish vote concentrated as it is in the key states of New York, California, Florida and Pennsylvania against Obama.
The smear campaign, with its ties to pro-settler Israeli circles, was based on the following syllogism: “Islam is intrinsically terrorist, anti-American and anti-Semitic, Obama is a closet Muslim, Obama is a secret sympathizer of anti-American, anti-Semitic terrorists.” But in the end Obama, with his brilliant feel for American politics, ignored his American Muslim and Arab-American critics, turned the tide and the Jewish vote remained firmly in the Democratic Party camp despite George W. Bush’s historic accomplishment as the most hard-line pro-Israeli American President since the establishment of the state. That margin also reaffirms that most American Jews, unlike many of the official leaders of the community, want peace and support the two-state solution.
Last night I talked about all of this with Nabil Fahmy who served in Washington for nine years as Egypt’s Ambassador, has met Obama, knows his political history and followed the campaign closely. (Amb. Fahmy has just assumed the position of Dean of the new School of Public Policy at AUC).
He is convinced that Obama represents real change and he bases that upon his amazing accomplishments to date — Obama’s inaugural speech extending respect and friendship to the Muslim world, his appointment of Mitchell to get the peace process going ASAP, his comments and in particular his insistence and his Secretary of State’s insistence that Israeli settlement expansion under any guise must cease. These aren’t just “words” — no other American President since George Bush the First — has spoken so firmly and publically to Israel and few Presidents before then.
But Ambassador Fahmy didn’t share my concern about the high public expectations. After all, he said, the situation in the region is so critical, the dangers so frightening, that to have America believing in diplomacy again, and to have the Arab world believing in America again is not simply great but provides the momentum for Obama to roll out his precise program for the region — tomorrow, or if not tomorrow, then soon after.
I think the Ambassador is right. I pray that the Ambassador is right.
S. Abdallah Schleifer is Distinguished Professor of Journalism at the American University in Cairo and Adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C.
Source: Daily News Egypt, 6/2/09