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What does the "Arab street" think of Obama? Enter Mostafa's barbershop.
CAIRO — Mostafa Menshawy, manning his barbershop in central Cairo last summer, marveled that the U.S. might elect its first Muslim president.
An array of older Egyptian men sat at the back of the shop watching Egyptian soap operas, while Menshawy offered tea to one of his clients and served up his latest dose of political analysis.
In many ways, this was a typical Egyptian block scene: men from the neighborhood gathering in one store or another each afternoon to catch up on the news, gossip, and television of the day.
Some listened with interest to Menshawy, while many kept their eyes on the television. Only a few tried to correct his mistake that Obama was Muslim.
But now the stars have fading from his eyes and Menshawy has changed his tune about the next American president.
“Nothing changes,” he sighed. “Bush, Clinton, Obama — all the same.”
As the inauguration of Barack Obama nears, many Egyptians are heaving a sigh of relief at the imminent end of the Bush administration. But that hasn’t translated to Obama-mania. Most Egyptians question whether Obama will significantly change U.S. policy in the Middle East.
When word first reached Cairo’s streets that a man named Barack Hussein Obama might be the next President, excitement was high. Even the more educated in Egypt found cause for excitement in Obama’s background.
“His father was Muslim,” said Daliah Galal, a PR executive in Cairo. “That will shape how he thinks of us.”
But as the Obama name began to sink in and people followed the debates and other election coverage, they became more conservative in their hopes for U.S. foreign policy.
And now, with Obama’s inauguration looming, a healthy dose of skepticism has set in. Egyptians have begun to realize that U.S. foreign policy does not change on a dime.
The inclusion of Hillary Clinton and Rahm Emanuel in Obama’s team has done little to stoke Egyptian enthusiasm.
“He fought with the Israelis!” growled one Cairo taxi driver of Emanuel.
Since its revolution in 1952, Egypt has struggled to find its place in a world where Arab interests and Western interests have often been at odds. General Gamal Abdel Nasser drove a wedge between the West and the Middle East preaching a doctrine of anti-colonialism.
The pendulum swung back in 1978 when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat drew the ire of the Arab world when he was the first regional leader to sign a strategic peace agreement with the Israel.
To this day, the vast majority of Egyptians continue to support the peace agreement and many cite Jimmy Carter as their favorite American President. Since the Camp David accords, Egypt has walked a thin line, closely aligning itself with U.S. interests while trying to reassert its leadership over the Arab world.
But as Western and Arab interests have moved further apart in recent years, Egypt has found the yawning divide more difficult to straddle.
“It was a big mistake for the U.S., Israel and Egypt to weaken Egypt’s role in the region and the role it could have played in the Arab, Israeli negotiations,” said political analyst Diaa Rashwan of Egyptian think-tank, the Ahram Center.
“The Egyptian regime is more isolated now than it ever has been,” he sighed.
The U.S. has been able to keep Egypt on a tight leash because of its $1.4 billion annual aid, making Egypt the third highest recipient of U.S. aid after Israel and Iraq.
“A large part of the $1.4 billion is going to defense,” said Cairo University economics professor Ola El-Khawaga. “This is critical to maintain our status as a military power in the region.” Since 2001, the Bush administration has made democratic reforms the center of U.S foreign policy towards Egypt.
Thanks largely to U.S. efforts, President Hosni Mubarak’s regime agreed, for the first time in 2005, to begin allowing multi-party participation in presidential elections.
However, most political analysts argue that the new laws allowing multi-party participation are carefully designed to exclude Mubarak’s greatest political adversary, the Muslim Brotherhood.
Though Obama’s middle name may afford him a little extra goodwill in Egypt as he comes to power, he is viewed by many here with the skepticism that would accompany any new U.S. president.
But reversing Egypt’s popular opinion of the U.S. is not an impossible task, argued Rashwan of the Ahram Center. Most critically, he argued, the U.S. would be wise to unshackle Egypt diplomatically.
“The U.S. must let Egypt be free to make regional maneuvers,” he said, “to make it more trusted in the Arab world.” Until Egypt is allowed to disagree more with the U.S. on the international stage, particularly regarding Israel and the Middle East, Egyptian isolation is likely to continue.
Many political observers believe that a stronger, more independent Egypt in the Arab world might translate to a stronger ally for the U.S., but it would require bold steps by Obama to overhaul the nature of U.S.-Egyptian relations.
Public opinion is forged in places like Mostafa Menshawy’s barbershop. If Obama has serious ambitions of renewing America’s image abroad, he will have to speak directly to the barbershop gang and show them he trusts Egypt to develop its own voice in international affairs.