American President Barack Obama promised to turn the page in US relations with the Middle East and Muslim world, calling for “a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”[i] During his first 100 days in office he made good on that promise with a number of initiatives in which he reached out to Arabs and Muslims across the globe. Obama granted his first interview to the Arabic-language news channel Al Arabiya, to which he explained that his Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell had been instructed to listen, “because all too often the United States starts by dictating.”[ii] He later offered a New Year’s greeting of hope and peace in a video message to the Iranian people and their government, and in Ankara told the Muslim world that “the United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam.”[iii] And although slightly behind schedule, he finally delivered a much-touted speech in Egypt in which he highlighted America and the Muslim world’s shared interests, again seeking “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world.”[iv]
Given the challenges posed by the global financial crisis and the historical significance of his being the nation’s first African-American president, it is no surprise that much was made in the US of Obama’s first 100 days in office. Western media outlets such as CNN devoted special segments to analysis of the president’s first few months at work, while commentators and editorial pages picked apart his opening policies. Politicians, scholars, and pundits on Salon.com and in Foreign Policy magazine even issued report cards for Obama, grading his handling of a host of issues both foreign and domestic.[v] He passed with flying colors.
And when his Middle East outreach initiatives are viewed alongside his reversals of US policies on Iraq, offshore prisons, and torture, it is not surprising either that the Arab and Muslim worlds have also watched President Obama closely since he assumed office in late January. So how did Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East, on the receiving end of so much of US foreign policy, grade Obama’s first 100 days in office and his historic Cairo speech? In their view, did he pass or fail?
The Cairo test and its graders
Egypt is a key player in both the Arab and Muslim worlds and is an important US ally in the Middle East. The country has been receiving upwards of $2 billion a year in American military and economic aid since 1975.[vi] This fiscal year, however, Congress has scaled back aid to Egypt to $1.5 billion down from $1.71 billion last year, much of it funding for “democracy promotion,” citing human rights concerns and calling for Cairo to increase security cooperation with Israel.[vii] Egypt has the largest Arab army and is a military, security, and economic force in the Middle East. Having signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1979, Cairo also plays an influential role in Arab-Israeli and intra-Palestinian negotiations. This, along with the country’s historic weight, has long granted it a powerful political standing in the region. Important religious institutions such as Al-Azhar have secured it an influential place in the greater Muslim world as well. In addition, Egypt boasts one of the region’s oldest and richest media landscapes with a myriad newspapers, television channels, and a blossoming blogosphere.
During President Obama’s first 100 days in office from 20 January to 29 April, three of Egypt’s most prominent writers and journalists, Salaama Ahmed Salaama, Fahmy Howeidy, and Ibrahim Eissa, penned 193 op-ed pieces, 71 (37%) of which discussed Obama and US policy. Media has often been examined as a means of gauging public opinion in the Arab world, and can be a useful measure along with public opinion polls and surveys.[viii] So just as op-ed journalists in American newspapers like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal hold sway over American public opinion, these three writers are among those widely-read Egyptian journalists who influence public opinion on the “Egyptian street.”
Salaama Ahmed Salaama, the first writer, has had a career in journalism since 1953, and until earlier this year was the managing editor of the pro-government Al-Ahram, one of the region’s oldest newspapers and Egypt’s most widely distributed.[ix] A shrewd and succinct writer, Salaama is perhaps most widely recognized for his popular daily column in Al-Ahram, “Close Up.” He is the editor-in-chief of the intellectualist political and cultural magazine Wighat Nathar, and recently left Al-Ahram to contribute to the up-and-coming independent newspaper Al-Shorouk. Salaama is typically categorized as progressive and liberal, and although often critical of government policies, he rarely crosses red lines.
Fahmy Howeidy, like Salaama, has had a long career in journalism spanning over 50 years and now also writes for Al-Shurouk.[x] A prolific writer, Howeidy enjoys widespread popularity across the region through the publication of numerous books and the printing of his articles throughout much of the Arab world. He formerly produced a weekly column for Al-Ahram but discontinued it in December of 2008 alleging increased censorship of his work, most notably of his outspoken criticism of the Egyptian government during Israel’s 2008-2009 offensive in Gaza.[xi] Howeidy is a complex and thoughtful writer and is generally described as a “moderate Islamist.”
The third writer, Ibrahim Eissa, is the editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Al-Dustour. Eissa is known as a harsh critic of the Egyptian regime under President Hosni Mubarak and has been jailed a number of times for “insulting the Egyptian president” and “threatening public security.” Most recently, he was pardoned – by the President - in October 2008 after being sentenced for “spreading rumors” about the status of President Mubarak’s health.[xii] Al-Dustour, in which he writes a daily editorial, has faced its fair share of obstacles as well. After its founding in 1995, it was shut down for seven years in 1998 for printing a message from an Islamic group threatening Egyptian Coptic businessmen.[xiii] Eissa writes biting, sometimes jumbled editorial pieces, often injecting colorful Egyptian dialect into his newspaper’s otherwise Modern Standard Arabic journalese.
Passing grades, failing grades
President Obama did not score as well on his Egyptian report card as he did on his American one. While these writers generally commended him for his initiatives in engaging with the Arab and Muslim worlds, they criticized him for not promoting democracy in the region and for what they saw as a continuation of Bush administration policies on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
On committing to improving relations with the Middle East and the Muslim world, engaging with the world through dialogue and diplomacy, and upholding democracy and human rights in the United States, President Obama received an overall passing grade for his first 100 days in office from his Egyptian reviewers. Salaama Ahmed Salaama, for example, welcomed Obama’s desire to improve America’s image and to better its relations with the rest of the world. In March he observed that changes in US foreign policy had already “begun to appear with initiatives [taken] by the American administration.”[xiv]
Fahmy Howeidy likewise expressed his belief that Obama had been “keen to open up and extend his hand to all, showing his desire to deal with others in order to achieve a peaceful existence and shared goals.” In the same article, Howeidy added that “the new American president has been partial from the outset to the idea of dialogue without discrimination.”[xv]
Salaama also lauded President Obama’s ban on the use of torture, and wrote that his directive to close the US prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, “symbolically represents a pronouncement of a return to the principles and values upon which America was founded, and which the Bush administration violated…This measure will not only be evidence of America’s reclamation of its ethical and moral influence, but it will also give America’s reports on democracy, religious freedoms, and human rights the power to exert real influence after they had previously just been thrown in the trash.” [xvi]
Ibrahim Eissa, for his part, dedicated one of his daily editorials to a story he read in The Washington Post about Norman Eisen, the White House Special Counsel to the President for Ethics and Government Reform. Eissa praised the role Eisen plays in ensuring the transparency and accountability of the White House as uniquely American, and said that he could never imagine having someone like that in what he described as Egypt’s “republican palace.”[xvii]
Salaama further highlighted that he was happy with Obama’s forthright proclamation that the US has not been and will never be at war with Islam. And Howeidy seemed pleased that the Obama administration differentiated between “moderates and extremists in the Islamic arena,” something that he considered to be “new in American political discourse.”[xviii]
Yet on promoting democracy and human rights in Egypt and his handling of the Arab-Israeli conflict, these writers gave President Obama failing grades during his first few months in office. Ibrahim Eissa was the most outspoken in criticizing Obama in regards to the former, accusing him of collaborating with the Egyptian government at the expense of democracy and human rights. Eissa claimed that the US and Egyptian governments were “selling a story” that the Muslim Brotherhood might win elections and seize power in the country, and were therefore engaging in a form of election rigging, something that he said America considers “a trivial human rights sacrifice” made in order to keep the Muslim Brotherhood from gaining power.[xix] He further accused Obama of wanting a dictatorial “’Mubarak Egypt’…which would guarantee [President Obama] and America that Egyptian policy remains subject to America’s whims.”[xx]
It was in relation to the Arab-Israeli conflict, however, that President Obama earned his lowest grade of all from the Egyptian writers. And this failing grade was heavily weighted. Whether it was discussing the US-Israeli “special relationship,” the Israeli lobby in America, US involvement in Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, US policy towards Hamas, or the 2008-2009 Israeli offensive in Gaza, these writers framed their views of the US primarily in terms of its relationship to this conflict, giving it more emphasis than any other issue, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the global financial crisis. US policy vis-à-vis the Arab-Israeli conflict was treated in 38 (54%) of the 71 articles dealing with President Obama and the US, always with distaste and a sense of hopelessness.
Salaama, for example, described Obama as having lost his first battle against the “overarching power of the Zionist lobby” in the case of Ambassador Charles Freeman, whose nomination for chairmanship of the National Intelligence Council was withdrawn by the Obama administration, some argue, under pressure from pro-Israel groups upset by Freeman’s criticism of Israel. [xxi] In another example, he noted that a visit to the region by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had revealed the true nature of the Obama administration’s policy towards the Arab-Israeli conflict, writing that “the primary policies of the Bush administration remain in place, unchanged.”[xxii] He also criticized the Obama administration for its policy towards Hamas, writing that “if [the United States] is serious – as influential high-level officials in the Obama administration have said – about ceasing hostilities and administering the ceasefire agreement in its various stages, Hamas must take part in the political process.”[xxiii]
He further opined that President Obama, “whatever his intentions towards finding a solution to the Palestinian problem, or his promises to adhere to the establishment of a Palestinian state, will not be able to deviate from the fundamental bases of American policy.”[xxiv] Howeidy likewise wrote that “bias towards Israel is one of the unvarying elements of American policy…so do not expect [President Obama] to change America’s fundamental position, though he may change its style and degree.”[xxv]
In a similar vein, Eissa wrote that President Obama and America are committed to “supporting the survival and strength of Israel” and that therefore, “Obama’s support for Israel…his championing of that country’s belligerent and Nazi policies, and the proclamation of America’s complete and total support for Tel Aviv,” was only to be expected.[xxvi]
The Cairo speech
President Obama’s 4 June address in Cairo, although delivered past his first 100 days in office, nevertheless reflected and reinforced the critical elements of his administration's foreign policy toward the Arab and Muslim worlds. Yet our writers overall had low expectations for the speech, and aside from appreciating the president’s oratory skills, gave Obama failing grades here as well. Salaama was the most hopeful of the three, entertaining the possibility that Obama’s overture could better relations between the United States and the Arab world. He wrote that rather than offering a comprehensive solution to the Middle East’s problems, he expected that Obama’s speech would at least present “a greater vision for American, Arab, and Muslim relations.”[xxvii]
Less optimistic was Fahmy Howeidy, whose commentary on the Cairo speech reflected his overall views of President Obama during his first 100 days in office. In an article titled “We trust his intentions and doubt his abilities,” Howeidy wrote of Obama that while “it is true the man’s ideas are revolutionary in the American [political] field,” that “political rhetoric does not necessarily translate into action.”[xxviii] Howeidy predicted that the president would continue to face resistance from the “religious political right” that is trying to sabotage his initiatives on a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Iranian nuclear program, and the closing of the prison at Guantanamo Bay.[xxix]
Although Howeidy seemed to believe that Obama has been sincere in his intentions to better relations between America and the Muslim world, he also wrote of what he called the “oppression” of Muslims and Muslim activists in the US, declaring that “the effectiveness of all the optimistic words that Obama constantly uses in calling for better relations with Muslims evaporates when Muslims hear news of the subjugation and oppression of their brethren in the United States.”[xxx] Therefore, Howeidy argued, “setting into motion Obama’s call to achieve reconciliation with the Islamic world needs time.”[xxxi] Howeidy criticized the Egyptian media for its giddiness over Obama’s impeding visit and his very choice of Cairo, scorning the media for projecting the speech as a symbol of “hope for the Palestinians and all Arabs and Muslims.”[xxxii] Rather, he predicted, “Israel will be the greatest beneficiary of Obama’s trip and vision, and the Palestinians and the Arabs will be the biggest losers.”[xxxiii]
Eissa was the most pessimistic about President Obama’s speech. In one Al-Dustour editorial, he explained why Obama had chosen Cairo as the site for his speech and what that meant in the context of US-Egyptian relations. In keeping with his characteristic political analysis, Eissa considered Obama’s visit a tacit approval of President Mubarak’s continued rule.[xxxiv] In an editorial published the next day, Eissa asked, “Why, even if Barack Hussein Obama swears on a copy of the Quran, will Arabs and Muslims not trust him?” and then went on to explain why Obama’s speech would amount to nothing but a complete failure.[xxxv] He cited, among other reasons, the simple fact that Obama is an American president; “this alone is enough for people not to trust him.”[xxxvi] In conclusion he asked, “How will this speech encourage Arabs to trust Obama…when he is shaking hands…and supporting tyrannical Arab rulers?”[xxxvii]
Elsewhere Eissa opined that “the unabashed American bias towards Israel with its occupation…and criminal and Nazi war against the Palestinian people” would trump any feelings of empathy Muslims had towards Obama because of his Muslim roots.[xxxviii] He wrote, “America’s pro-Israel policy dispels any illusions about Obama’s outstretched hand and reveals the man’s true nature. He is just another American politician who is trying to ease the tension between his country and the people of the world. He is neither a messenger, nor a savior of justice, nor a symbol of dialogue between cultures and religions. He is nothing more than George Bush’s competitor, attempting to kill the Palestinian people with poison rather than by missile.”[xxxix]
Salaama did not make any public comments following Obama’s speech, but both Howeidy and Eissa were quite vociferous in their reactions. Although Howeidy described the speech itself as “very impressive,” he considered it essentially nothing more than “a nice gesture,” writing that "Obama moved people with his beautiful rhetoric and then said goodbye. That is what the visit was all about."[xl] Eissa called the speech the “height of foolishness,” mocking the president’s use of Arabic terms and quotations from the Qur’an, and chastising Egyptians for being duped by the president’s “old, empty words…which are not worth the ink with which they were written!”[xli] On the subject of Guantanamo, he scoffed at Obama’s promise to close the prison and send its inmates to other countries, “as if the problem is housing and not human rights.”[xlii]
Just as the Arab-Israeli conflict strongly influenced the writers’ opinions of Obama overall, so it weighed heavily on their reactions to his Cairo speech. Howeidy was frustrated that the president’s "impressive rhetoric did not tell us anything about US policies on pressing issues, particularly the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, other than what we already knew."[xliii] He was also disappointed by the lack of detail regarding the borders of a future Palestinian state, and thought that the Israeli historical narrative portrayed in the speech was overblown, arguing that "the number of Holocaust victims was exaggerated."[xliv] Eissa similarly felt that Obama sought to justify the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have been undertaken “against Arabs and Muslims,” and that his speech “championed the cause of the Jewish state and acknowledged Israel’s right to the occupied land.”[xlv]
For these three writers, President Obama’s first 100 days in office and his Cairo address were overwhelming failures. One cannot argue that Obama did not set out to fundamentally alter the relationship between the United States and the Arab and Muslim worlds. His administration “extended its hand” and the president himself visited the region, directly addressing Arabs and Muslims. Many expected that a change in administration - especially since the previous one had been looked upon with such derision in the Middle East - coupled with Obama’s likeability and willingness to engage, would result in major changes in America’s relationship with the Arab and Muslim worlds and their perceptions of the US. But it is clear that while the relationship may be slowly shifting, the Arab and Muslim worlds are still dissatisfied with US foreign policy.
The three writers broached the Arab-Israeli conflict more often than they did any other topic when discussing US policy, both during Obama’s first 100 days and in reacting to the Cairo speech. Eissa’s proclivity to discuss the lack of US support for democracy in Egypt came in a distant second, and it should be noted that for the other two writers this topic appeared to be far less important. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, often cited as sources of discontent in the Arab and Muslim worlds, and the global financial crisis, in contrast, were barely touched upon. The 2008-2009 Israeli offensive in Gaza which ended shortly before Obama took office certainly contributed to the high frequency with which the writers discussed the Arab-Israeli conflict. Yet this issue has always played prominently in the public discourse of Egypt and the region as a whole; polling has consistently shown that US policies towards the Arab-Israeli conflict remain one of, if not the most influential factor in the shaping of Egyptian and Arab public opinion of the United States.[xlvi] It seems as though in the wake of the Israeli offensive, these writers were anticipating an official statement from Obama in support of their own views. Although he has adopted a strong stance on Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Obama has yet to satisfy these writers overall with substantial changes in US policy on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Kept waiting in vain for a clear reversal of US foreign policy, all three writers often compared Obama to his predecessor, President George W. Bush. In a 24 January 2009 article titled “Waiting for Obama,” published four days after Obama was sworn into office, Howeidy explained that “one of the reasons for the new American president’s welcome in the Arab world is that the people in our countries hate Mr. Bush to the point that they are convinced that any other person coming to the White House would be better than him.”[xlvii] Although some Egyptians and other Arabs have expressed an affinity with Obama because of his African and Muslim background, in his reaction to Obama’s speech, Eissa criticized those who have accepted President Obama simply because of who he is, and who he is not. “Hate for George Bush was the number one reason for our love for Barack Obama, as if the story is about names and personalities, and not policies and positions,” Eissa wrote, adding, “Everything Obama said Bush also said word for word.”[xlviii] Perhaps most astutely, Howeidy explained in one of his articles that Obama’s policies in the Middle East represent a “change in means and not in ends. America’s strategic objectives will not change; rather the change occurring is in the methods of carrying them out. In this regard, Obama wants to use ‘soft power’ whereas his predecessor would always resort to harsh and ruthless action.” [xlix]
Salaama Ahmed Salaama, Fahmy Howeidy, and Ibrahim Eissa’s comments on Barack Obama’s first 100 days in office and his Cairo address are a testament to the fact that rhetoric and public diplomacy can only do so much for America’s image. For them, it is US policy that remains the point of tension between the United States and the Arab and Muslim worlds. Indeed, Fahmy Howeidy described the Cairo speech as “the same old film, but with a change in direction," stressing that "Politics is not about goodwill" and that "It is now time for deeds."[l]
Joseph Simons was a 2008-2009 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA) at the American University in Cairo.