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Cairo Reacts to Obama

Muqtedar Khan
Filed on August 16, 2009

This new perfume sir, its name Obama”, said the perfumer in old Cairo with a smile. His marketing gimmick was no surprise. Egypt is suffering from a strong case of Obamania. Intellectuals and ordinary people need little encouragement to talk about President Obama’s speech.


While some are cynical and skeptical, optimism and hope is generally the order of the day. Since President Obama’s speech various intellectual forums in Cairo have held seminars and symposia to discuss and debate the content and the intent of his speech, which both admirers and critics acknowledge was path breaking in substance as well as in style.

I was in Egypt last month leading a delegation of American scholars and leaders in an exercise in public diplomacy.We engaged scholars, activists and community leaders of different intellectual and political currents on issues of democracy, faith and community and on US-Muslim relations. We also explored the hope for much better US-Muslim relations now that US has abandoned many of the misguided policies of the Bush administration and is actively seeking to improve understanding and cooperation with the Muslim World.

Our first dialogue was at the Egyptian Council on Foreign Relations; where several leading members of the Egyptian establishment acknowledged that there was indeed a “new language” in President Obama’s discourse towards the Middle East, but they remained skeptical about prospects for significant change in US policy. They reiterated the commitment of Egyptian elite to Islam as the main source of Egyptian values but also argued that secularism was the preferred choice of Egyptian people.

When quizzed about the so-called Arab and Israeli consensus on Iran, they were angry and asserted that the Arab world still saw Israel as a much greater threat than Iran. After all it was Israel and not Iran that had launched two wars against Arabs, in the past three years. Like most other opinion makers and leaders they too tried to emphasise the centrality of the Palestinian issue and argued that unless it was addressed honestly and fairly by the US, US image in the Muslim World would not improve.

At the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies we found that President Obama’s speech in Cairo had launched an interesting debate in the Egyptian public sphere about US policies. They felt that his speech had empowered the moderates who wish to see reconciliation between the US and the broader Muslim World. President Obama’s language and demeanor confirmed more with the image of the US advanced by Egyptian liberals and undermined the credibility of nationalist and Islamist critique of emerging US policies in the region.

Several policy analysts at the Al-Ahram Center also made an interesting suggestion. They argued that the US had a better chance of leveraging Hamas through Syria than through Egypt. They suggested that Syria and not Egypt had a better chance of mediating between Palestinian factions because it had greater influence with Hamas. If the US can come to an understanding with Syria, they argued, then there was a better chance of a united Palestinian negotiating partner emerging. The failure of Egypt to reconcile the Palestinian factions after two years of negotiations does beg that need to approach the problem from a different perspective – From Damascus rather than Cairo.

To our dismay, we found that there was a lot of despair and anger among Egyptian intellectuals at the failure of the peace process, at the continued suffering of the people in Gaza and Israeli insistence on building more Jewish settlements on Palestinian lands. Several intellectuals of different persuasions—pro-regime, critical of the regime, sympathetic to Islamists – felt that the two-state solution had already expired. They felt that unless settlements were curtailed and dismantled there was no hope and no land left for a Palestinian state.

But on the positive side, regardless of whom we spoke to, the commitment to peace with Israel remained strong and no one wanted another war with Israel.Egypt’s refusal to open the southern borders of Gaza during the Gaza war in January 2009 was cited, by one scholar, as proof of Egypt’s commitment to the peace treaty.

One of the high points of the mission was a dialogue with the Coptic community during a visit to the Coptic Evangelical Organisation for Social Services (CEOSS). The delegates from the US were deeply moved by the selfless mission of this organisation. In spite of belonging to a religious minority worked for everyone in Egypt without discrimination. This was also one of the few dialogues in which the poverty of the Egyptian masses was discussed and the delegation learned that CEOSS was actively involved in bridging cultural gaps between Muslims and Christians and economic gaps between the rich and the poor. For many of us CEOSS and its work has become a beacon of hope for both interfaith relations and for struggle against poverty in Egypt.

The delegation did not meet with any Islamist groups but we did visit the Cairo University where we encountered people sympathetic to the Islamist cause.

For those of us who were searching for the moderate middle in Egyptian politics; distinct from secular authoritarianism and Islamic dogmatism, there was the Al-Wasat party. Al-Wasat party is composed of over 1200 members who are seeking to advance a vision for a new kind of politics in Egypt. They understand that Islamic values are fundamental to Egyptian society and must undergird its polity. But they also acknowledge that religious edicts are not a substitute for public policy and religious credentials do not guarantee good governance.

We realised that Egypt had a promising and a viable middle ground that was both intellectually vibrant and genuinely authentic.

Egypt is a land of startling contradictions. As I stood on the parapets of the Citadel of Salahuddin and looked at Cairo, I found it to have a glorious and majestic past and uncertain future.As we engaged the intelligentsia we found excitement and hope but when I chatted with cab drivers and street vendors the despair and hopelessness was palpable.Egypt is a country of 75 million people, some very rich but the rest very poor.

The average national income is less than $200 per month, but the city is full of museums, palaces and grand mosques. It is a challenge for Egypt to find its way towards a brighter future, one not diminished by the glare from the past or the pessimism of the present.

Most Egyptians want peace, they want democracy, and they want to grow. Above all they want to escape the miserable conditions of their daily life. Like the pyramids, they meet you with pride hiding neither their glory nor the ravages of severe climate and tough living conditions.

Dr. Muqtedar Khan is Director of Islamic Studies at the University of Delaware and a Fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.





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