Feb 3, 2011

Will Egyptians Ever Like Us?

Will Egyptians Ever Like Us?

By J.D. Gordon
AOL News
February 3, 2011

Except for Hosni Mubarak and his throng of increasingly violent supporters in Cairo, it seems just about everyone's cheering the uprising in Egypt. But while the events in Egypt may ultimately be good for Egyptians, they seriously complicate our relations with the country.

After all, the more representative Egypt's government is of its people, the less likely it's going to be very friendly to the U.S.

A Pew Global Attitudes poll from June showed just how little regard Egyptians have for the United States and our ways.

According to that poll, a mere 17 percent of Egyptians view the U.S. favorably, while 59 percent hold positive views of Islamists. Half view the radical Palestinian terror group Hamas favorably.

And 20 percent even favor al-Qaida -- sadly, making this terrorist organization more popular in Egypt than the U.S. is.

The same poll found that more than 80 percent of Egyptians favor stoning to death as suitable punishments both for adultery and for any Muslim who changes his or her religion.

And while there's no doubt Mubarak ruled with an iron fist, he did that in part at least to keep Egypt's radical Islamic groups in check.

This is no small matter. Mubarak's predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1981 in retaliation for his making peace with archrival Israel, while Egyptian groups like Islamic Jihad and Gamaat al Islamiya formed the cornerstones of al-Qaida. The writings of Egypt's Sayyid Qutb, considered the father of the Islamist fundamentalist movement, are widely credited with inspiring Osama bin Laden's war against the U.S.

To gain better insights into whether Egyptians will ever like the U.S., it would be helpful to know why so many hold such negative views in the first place. Among the reasons:

* U.S. support for Mubarak. While preaching democracy around the globe, three decades of U.S. leadership has stood by Mubarak despite the lack of any meaningful dissent -- combined with Egypt's lack of social mobility and widespread poverty.

* U.S. support for Israel. The crushing defeat of Egyptian forces by the Israelis in the Six-Day War in 1967 still humiliates a nation that sees itself as the cradle of civilization. Though the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has essentially no impact on the daily life of Egyptians, nearly all are incensed by the notion that fellow Muslims are being oppressed.

* Media portrayal. As commonly found in the Middle East, many local and pan-Arab media are typically virulently anti-U.S. and prone to generate conspiracy theories. On a visit to Egypt in late 2009, I spoke with many Egyptians who cited Arabic press reports that 9/11 was a CIA plot, in which 3,000 Jews were told to stay home, to justify invasions of Muslim countries.

So is it realistic that Egyptians will ever like us?

As with all things in life, it is certainly possible.

However, given the vast differences in cultural norms, religious beliefs, and the key issues of both Israel and significant U.S. military presence in Muslim countries, such a turnaround in public sentiment would likely take at least a generation.

To start, the U.S. should avoid the appearance of taking sides in the current protests.

Siding with the protesters may seem noble at the moment, though should the country fall into the hands of hardliners such as the Muslim Brotherhood with perceived U.S. assistance, those Egyptians truly fighting for a secular, prosperous, liberal democracy surely will not forget our role if their country becomes a Sunni version of Iran.

Next, solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be understated, as it is of enormous symbolic importance in the Arab world. Efforts to date just have not been good enough, and the U.S. should apply more pressure to both sides -- failure to do so is at our own peril.

Finally, the U.S. must do a better job of public diplomacy in working with Egypt's government and media outlets to challenge deeply flawed portrayals of the country and correct the record at every opportunity.

So before U.S. leaders rush to force elections in Egypt, they might want to look across the border in Gaza -- a place where they backed historic elections just five years ago. And the result? Palestinians overwhelmingly elected Hamas, which then wasted little time before firing rockets into Israel. Would a newly "democratic" Egypt follow suit?


The author is a communications consultant to four Washington, D.C., think tanks and a retired Navy commander who served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2009 as the Pentagon spokesman for the Western Hemisphere. For more info, visitwww.jdgordoncommunications.com.

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