CAIRO -- At a local cafe, a group of young men are having their morning tea or coffee and a few are smoking a shisha, or water pipe. Over the past year, discussing politics has become the norm for these seven middle class Egyptians over the past year. In recent months the conversation has turned decidedly anti-US.
“You know, we weren’t giving the US a hard time after the revolution because they were supporting us, but now it has changed because of their weapons and their support for the military,” Osama Tarek, a 28-year-old business manager at the local branch of international firm, told The Media Line.
As an activist who was on the frontlines of recent clashes, his faith and admiration for the America has dwindled to nearly nil.
“We struggled for our freedom and still are, but America keeps sending weapons and bullets that hurt and kill the people they claim to support,” he says.
Across the table, in between long drags on the shisha and billowing of white smoke in the cool morning breeze, Hossam nods his head in agreement. “Why shouldn’t we hate America? They are responsible for the deaths of so many Egyptians with their guns,” he says in reference to the aid provided by Washington to the Egyptian army, which is now ruling the country on an interim basis
That $1.3 billion in annual aid has left a scar on the Egyptian psyche, one that boiled over last month into protests in front of the American Embassy in Cairo, just down the street from this little cafe in downtown Cairo. Some 100 protesters gathered in front of the embassy in an angry protest were met with police and military, causing around a dozen injuries.
Even with the generals now ruling Egypt on an interim basis, Washington’s relations with Egypt have become testy amid an ongoing saga over the fate of 43 people working for non-government organizations charged by Egyptian authorities with illegal funding and distributing intelligence to foreign governments. They include 19 Americans and other foreigners, some of whom were blocked from leaving the country.
Washington threatened to suspend aid to Egypt over the affair. But for the embassy protesters, that would be all fine and good, as they accuse American of delivering of tear gas and other munitions to Egypt in the past 13 months.
Across the board, anti-Americanism is creeping back into Egyptian politics. The “invisible hand” often spoken about by the military and Islamist politicians recalls the tactics employed the Hosni Mubarak regime, which routinely hinted at American and Israeli interference as the source of Egypt’s troubles.
A recent Gallup poll
of the Egyptian public taken the first week of February as the Egyptian-US NGO crisis was at its peak revealed that the perception of the US is growing cooler. Among those surveyed, 56% thought that relations with America were a “bad thing,” up 16 percentage points from the previous poll taken in December.
“Egyptians are now more likely to see promise in closer ties with Turkey and Iran than with the US A solid majority of Egyptians say closer relations with Turkey would be a good thing,” Gallup said.
US President Barack Obama visited Cairo early in his administration and made a high profile speech there seeking to mend American ties and was quick to call for Mubarak to step down when anti-regime protests erupted in January 2011 But Obama’s approval rating in Egypt has now dropped to less than 20%. Another poll
shows Egyptians even spurn American foreign aid by a margin 82% to 15%.
Activists are focused on two specific points in their anti-US rhetoric: They want Washington to end military aid to the country, and many call for an end to US aid altogether, or at least deliveries of tear gas and other munitions used against protesters.
“We aren’t anti-American in the sense we despise America and the country and its people, but we don’t want to see all these weapons and all this money come to Egypt for the military to use against average people,” says Munir AbdelHamid, a local human rights consultant for various international NGOs he asked not be named due to the current security situation.
What he calls the “growing anti-American chant” is the demand for freedom rather than a charted attack by activists and average Egyptians. He argues that they see “the United States sending money and weapons that are used against people. Why wouldn’t they get angry?”
Anti-Americanism runs deep in Egypt, and was prevalent long before the January 2011 uprising that brought down Mubarak, a staunch American ally. Washington was seen as an ally of Israel and therefore complicit in the deaths of thousands of Palestinians. This has left a mark on most Egyptians, who continue to view Israel as an enemy, despite a 1979 peace treaty.
In many ways, the rise of anti-Americanism is a direct result of US policy toward the region, says Essam el-Erian, a member of parliament for the Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm. He argues that people expected change, but what they “got was more of the same.”
For him and others, the public display of anger towards the US is the result of “the Obama administration not changing its actual policy toward Egypt. They still support the military because of Israel,” he told The Media Line.
Echoing Mubarak-era officials, Erian himself referred to the “invisible hand” following the early February violent clashes in downtown Cairo.
“But it is more than this,” he continues, avoiding answering who, or what is behind the so-called invisible hand. “America supports the Zionists in Israel and they do not engage with the average population, so they lose because they just give money to support Israel.”
In many ways it comes down to perception, and as American administrations before failed in their attempts to overcome being seen as giving lip service, author and analyst Galal Amin said in an interview recently. “The future of anti-Americanism lies with the United States,” he concluded.
For Amin, who authored the “Whatever Happened to the Egyptians” series, says public opinion in the Middle East is no different than those in other parts of the world.
“What they see happen, the support for dictators, Israel, whatnot, this has a direct impact on how people view America, so if whichever administration wants to see this change, they should start making compromises with its policy,” he argues.
But there is little hope in this cafe in the early morning. Hossam, the most outspoken member of the group, adds to Amin’s argument: “America will never have our support as long as they allow the stealing of Palestinian lands and the murdering of people here in Egypt and in Palestine.”
In other words, America’s problem with Egyptians is Israel. “If Obama came out and said we are not going to give military or economic aid to any country in the Middle East until Palestine has a state next to Israel,” says Hossam, “I think he would win. This could be the change we all want.”