Letter From Cairo: US Mideast Policy Bewilders Egyptian Intellectuals

Pamela Nice

In Cairo, one can always count on the unpredictable. This January was no exception. The first couple of weeks saw record rainfall and freezing temperatures. With no drainage system in the city, this created flooded streets, impromptu bridges composed of broken slabs of sidewalk, and a wait of up to 15 minutes to cross a busy intersection.

There were other changes from just a year ago: mobile phones and cybercafes have continued to proliferate throughout Cairo. The rush hour Metro, transporting primarily students and urban workers, rings out with competing mobile melodies. And - most significant and unpredictable of all - there were traffic cops, most of them fresh from the countryside, who insisted, if rather tentatively, that cars stop at the red lights! If they didn't, their license numbers were quickly scribbled down and the drivers received citations in the mail. I was told that a driver's license renewal is now denied if a driver isn't paid up on his traffic citations.

Unbelievable as this development may seem to those who know Cairo, even more incredible were some of the government's pronouncements on Egypt's deteriorating economic state. Prime Minister Atef Ebeid gave the opening address at the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies conference. I was fortunate to be the guest of a local businesswoman who offered enlightening and colorful commentary on the proceedings. The upshot of the conference was that Egypt was in desperate economic straits, in spite of the claim by Ebeid that unemployment was a mere four percent (a statement which was met by barely concealed sarcasm from the attending economists).

On the other hand, during January a new law made Internet access free for all those who have phone connections in their homes. Through this law, the support for mobile phone companies, and cybercafe expansion, the government has encouraged Egyptians to become more connected with each other and with other countries. One wonders if this might create a cyber-society in Egypt that could ultimately challenge the government in significant ways.

September 11 has had a significant effect on Egypt's economy, cutting down tourism by forty percent, further worsening the situation for the increasing numbers of the unemployed. The meaning of September 11 and discussion of its consequences for the Middle East were also major topics in the local newspapers and journals. Akhbar al-Adab, the most popular literary journal in the country, has been running a series of articles critiquing the relations between the Middle East and America. "We interviewed thinkers in the West, and some experts on the West who live in the Middle East, on how we might cross this divide between our cultures," said editor-in-chief Gamal al-Ghitany. "Very strong voices are also saying we need to look inside ourselves." These two themes have been ongoing in the journal since last October.

Al Ahram Weekly's letters from readers have increased from two or three letters a week last January to an entire page of letters from around the world this year. The diversity of opinion was marked: even pro-Israeli letters were printed.

As part of a documentary project I was working on, I interviewed many Egyptians about their reactions to September 11. I learned not only what they thought of America, but how they got their information about us, and what they'd like to tell us.

Dr. Nasser Loza, a psychiatrist and director of the Belham Mental Hospital in Cairo, definitely thought that September 11 has had an effect on Egyptians of all classes. No one knows where America will strike next, whether relatives who live or study in the U.S. will be safe, or whether Palestinians will be decimated by an Israel newly empowered by America's "War on Terror." "People are anxious - we've all taken a step backward," he said, referring to the world situation.

Documentary filmmaker Atteyat al-Abnoudi agreed with this analysis of a growing anxiety among Egyptians. "People in the third world have a dream about freedom, they have a dream to go abroad - to Europe, the States - to anyplace where we can breathe and study and learn. Now, it's closed; it has become no place for us. We are suspect."

While rejecting the notion that Arabs hate Americans, all of the Egyptians I talked with were strongly critical of American foreign policy in the Middle East. Said al-Abnoudi, "Sometimes I have bad dreams - nightmares: why this silence from everybody in the world? Why? Human beings are in Palestine; Sharon is a vampire. Why does the American policy stand by this man? They say the Jewish community is big in the U.S., and they finance the elections. So we pay our lives for the sake of the American elections? What can I say?"

Mahmoud El Lozy, a playwright and professor at the American University in Cairo, who studied and lived in the U.S. for several years, said the image of Americans broadcast by our own media shows only one side of us as a people. "When you look at CNN, you hear the same terminology - the "War on Terror"- that's coming out of the Pentagon and White House and National Security. So you get the sense of a uniform America that thinks alike on all these subjects. What comes across is a very brutal, very violent people, who love war, who worship war, and like to wreak havoc in all corners of the world."

Gamal al-Ghitany also faults the U.S. media for the image of Americans projected abroad: "All we see on CNN are F-16's, cruise missiles, attacks on Iraq. It's crazy - all the weapons are American! We never see anything good about American culture."

Ghitany also criticized U.S. support of dictatorships in the Middle East as contributing to Islamic fanaticism: "These systems [the dictatorships] are not democratic and they are anti-culture and art, and American influence exists in these dictatorships. So with this support, the U.S. is carrying a big part of the responsibility."

Not only have we supported these dictatorships, in some ways we have become more like them. Said El Lozy, "Some of the things that have been happening in America now - these new laws-arresting people, detaining them, investigating them without filing charges, all this sort of 'Home Defense' thing - is very similar to what we have here - Emergency Laws - which are basically a suspension of the Constitution. But what is frightening about this in America is that it has become part of the legal system, and seems to be getting support from certain people who are not aware of what it is."

Some Middle Easterners find it increasingly difficult to separate the American people from their government's policies. Sudanese novelist Tayeb Salih, who was visiting Cairo to take part in the International Book Fair, had an intriguing perspective on this. Though originally not fond of New Yorkers, he said he found them, after September 11, to be much friendlier than before. (He was a visiting professor at Vassar College last fall.) "I started to discover that the American people are really friendly and natural, and then I became rather baffled by the disparity I found between this friendliness and what I perceived to be the callousness of their government vis-a-vis this part of the world. An oddly menacing contradiction."

But he also mirrored Ghitany's call for more intercultural dialogue between the U.S. and Middle East. "I think Huntington is talking rubbish," he said. "How can you sum up a civilization and call it hostile or whatever, like this Huntington? This should be the main thing in this century - cross-currents, cross-cultural perspectives - just to dislodge these rather primitive assumptions about civilizations."

This article appeared in Vol. 8, no. 38 (Winter 2002).