Anti-American sentiment gradually surfaces in Egypt
An undercurrent of anger against the United States appears to be building here because of what many see as the Obama administration’s overly cautious response to the demands of protesters for the resignation of longtime U.S. ally President Hosni Mubarak.
Anti-American sentiment in Egypt has percolated just below the surface in Egypt for years, exacerbated by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and Washington’s steadfast support for Israel.
While the current level of public antipathy remains relatively low, anti-U.S. placards have been popping up amid the anti-Mubarak posters in the streets. And some seeking an end to Mubarak’s three decades of rule are quick to cite what they see as American hypocrisy.
“They are just waiting to see which side wins and then they will claim to have backed them all along,” said Amin Iskander, an official of the El Karama party, an opposition group.
Two years ago, President Obama chose this influential Arab capital as the setting for a landmark speech, reaching out to the Muslim world and calling on Arab regimes to respect the “will of the people.” In previous years, President George W. Bush made a series of calls for increased democracy in the Middle East.
Cairo resident Said Samir, 26, was among those inspired by Obama’s words. But on Monday, Samir was questioning the president’s sincerity in a situation where the public is fed up with a man it sees as an autocratic ally of America.
“If America really cares about democracy, why aren’t they behind us?” asked Samir, who spent Sunday night in Tahrir Square with hundreds of other protesters. “The U.S. went to Iraq and Afghanistan because they said they wanted to bring democracy, but their policies are unfair. If America keeps backing this regime and not the revolution, the people in Egypt will be very angry.”
Tariq Abbas, 50, an engineer also ignoring the overnight curfew, warned that Egyptians won’t forget soon how, in his opinion, the United States has not lived up to its own rhetoric about democratic values. “America is going to pay a big price for supporting Mubarak.”
Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei, the former U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency chief who in recent days has appeared to be gaining support, has likewise warned Obama to not be the last one calling for Mubarak’s resignation.
“You are losing credibility by the day,” he told CBS News on Sunday. “On one hand you’re talking about democracy, rule of law and human rights, and on the other hand you are lending support to a dictator that continues to oppress his people.”
After Friday’s violent clashes with police, many protesters angrily held up tear gas canisters that had been fired at them, pointing to the “Made in the USA” labels. The devices are part of the more than $1 billion in economic and military aid the U.S. provides Egypt.
Scattered among the protest signs in the downtown square, some in broken English, are sentiments such as “USA don’t involve, We will get [democracy] with our will. Play ur games with the tyrrant.”
The Obama administration is well aware of the risks to the Mideast’s stability that it faces in the unfolding crisis. American diplomats say that as a result, they are struggling to strike the right balance in tone and action.
Washington is wary of simply abandoning a predictable partner like Mubarak, who has long been a key Mideast ally in fighting Islamic extremism and keeping peace with neighbor Israel. Yet to some American officials, the situation is reminiscent of Iran in 1979, when U.S. support for the hugely unpopular shah backfired, resulting in the U.S. Embassy hostage crisis and the rise of a fervently anti-American government that remains firmly in control.
Some protesters in the streets of Cairo do express empathy for America’s predicament.
“They’re just trying to be neutral to prevent things from getting out of hand,” said Azza Abdulfadl, a science professor at Benha University. “There needs to be a plan. If Mubarak just quit today, it would take us into chaos.”
Yet many think the careful modulation in statements by U.S. officials — at times having called Mubarak’s rule “stable” while also calling for an “orderly transition” — have made American policy appear “fickle and insincere,” said political analyst and journalist Hisham Kassem. “The risk is that the U.S. will lose a lot of its influence in the region.”
Over the last decade, Kassem said, the view of America in Egypt has “been deteriorating.” Scandals such as the torture of Iraqi inmates at Abu Ghraib prison have gradually overshadowed Egyptians’ aspirations to emulate elements of American society, from eating at McDonald’s to freedom of expression.
Though some American journalists have encountered harassment and anger from protesters and other Egyptians, there have been no reports of anti-U.S. violence on the streets of Cairo in recent days.
Some American tourists unable to leave Cairo said they still felt comfortable enough to move past tanks and soldiers in the streets around their hotels.
Steve and Roxanne Peterson of Coal Valley, Ill. — he in a Hawaiian-print shirt, she in capris — were preparing to end their monthlong Egyptian tour with a much-anticipated visit to the Great Pyramids this week. Now they’re scrambling for a flight out, resigned to the fact that they’ll have to depart without seeing Egypt’s most famous attraction, which has been closed by the military.
“Even on the streets, we feel totally safe,” Roxanne Peterson said. “It really feels like the people on the streets are looking out for our safety.”
Nevertheless, they said they were hoping to catch one of the charter flights being organized by the U.S. Embassy: “We’re just trying to get home.”
Special correspondent Doha al Zohairy contributed to this report.
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