Sunday, February 8, 2009

Obama's closing window of opportunity

I've pasted below a superb NYT opinion piece from an Arab author, writing from Cairo, who speaks of the high hopes Obama's election raised among so many thousands of Egyptians - especially among the young - only to have them undercut by his failure to speak out against Israel's massacre of Gazans. (And as he notes, whatever we in the US are calling it, in the eyes of Egyptians it was truly a massacre.)

I continue to nurture high hopes that Obama can achieve some significant change, both in the country and in how the US is viewed "overseas" (a term that seems to me, BTW, increasingly silly, or at least much less fraught with significance, in this age of the internet). But I'm seeing too much evidence of same old - same old, at least in the official faces that Obama has brought on board. David Sirota recently published in Salon an essay castigating Obama for putting together an economic team of "establishment" Wall Street thinkers - maybe a bit less touched by the dirt clinging to Thaine-like figures, but largely representative of what he called the "Kleptocracy." Likewise, in foreign policy. Hillary Clinton, Richard Holbrooke, Dennis Ross, Robert Gates? At least they aren't numbered among the neocon crowd that poisoned so much of the Bush administration's policy-making, but they are hardly the kind of people from whom we truly can expect fresh thinking, much less be agents of the kind of change that Obama was offering us in his run for the presidency.

And if Mr. Obama can't soon demonstrate to the Arab and Muslim worlds that his thinking along the lines of US foreign policy (and most importantly, in the US's ties with Israel and approach to securing justice for the Arabs of Palestine) is truly going to be more than a smiley-face-festooned version of Bush's thought box, then we may see the US's relations with the peoples (as opposed to the regimes) of those worlds slip to a point even lower than under Mr. Bush. In his physical image as well as his words, Obama has held out to them the shining promise of something new and inspiring. But they have neither the time nor (I suspect) the inclination to be kept waiting much longer for real signs that he intends to keep that promise. (Indeed, as at least one commentator has noted, the "big speech" Joe Biden gave yesterday in Germany could have as easily been crafted by Condi Rice.)

BTW, along some of these lines I might recommend Andrew Bacevich's recent and much-discussed brief tome, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. One of his major points: that US foreign policy has been essentially in a rut since the end of World War II, prone to being guided by "establishment" analysts (among them most recently, Paul Wolfowitz) who have been intent on securing US global military dominance, have overreacted to perceived threats (be they the USSR, Communist China, or "radical Islam"), and have led the American public around by the nose by ratcheting up their fears of these boogeyman "others." Now, of course, there are at least three such regional/conceptual boogeymen to scare us with, each of them with its own peculiar face of Satan: al-Qaeda, with the mysterious (Where'd he go? Why can't we nail him?) Osama Bin Laden; Iran (or, more broadly, radical Islamism), with "crazy" Mahmud Ahmadinejad and the "mad mullahs"; and Russia (which most Americans still identify with Reagan's "evil empire" of the Soviet Union), with (that ex-KGBer; must have been an assassin and torturer) Vladimir Putin. (If I had a dollar for every time these names have been invoked on the floors of the House and Senate . . . .)

Why the Muslim World Can’t Hear Obama


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. Mr. 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 Mr. Obama. Many Egyptians I know went to his Web site 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 Mr. Obama won, newspapers here described Nubians — southerners whose dark skin stands out in Cairo — dancing in victory.

Our admiration for Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 recognize how far the distance is between the great American values that Mr. Obama embodies, and what can actually be accomplished in a country where support for Israel seems to transcend human rights and international law.

Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Obama’s failure to intercede in Gaza. I thus concluded that no matter how many envoys, speeches or interviews Mr. 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 Mr. 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. Perhaps the most eloquent expression of this came from one Egyptian blogger: “I love America. It’s the country of dreams ... but I wonder if I will ever be able someday to declare my love.”

Alaa Al Aswany is the author of “The Yacoubian Building” and “Chicago.” This article was translated by Geoff D. Porter from the Arabic.

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