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Anti-U.S. Feelings Bubble Up in Egypt

More and more, citizens of the Arab world's most populous and influential country feel betrayed by and distrustful of America.

October 29, 2002|David Lamb | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — Forty-six years ago, when the United States withdrew its offer to help build the Aswan dam after Egypt recognized China, President Gamal Abdel Nasser rallied his people in Cairo and shouted from an elevated stage, "O America, may you choke to death on your fury!"

In the streets below, the multitudes roared approval.

Today, on the streets of Cairo, capital of the Arab world's most populous and influential country, one hears an echo of those anti-American sentiments from the past. Sometimes harsh and angry, sometimes softened by a long-held admiration of the United States, it is the voice of people who feel betrayed by and distrustful of America and what is perceived here as its effort to rearrange the Middle East at gunpoint.

"I'd always looked up to the U.S.," said Gamal Mahfouz, 32, a computer engineer. "I never liked its foreign policy, but I admired its democracy and general system. After 9/11, everything the country stood for seemed to disappear. It became judgmental and intolerant. Isn't that why the U.S. was created--to get rid of intolerance toward others? I don't look up to the U.S. anymore. Worse, I feel since 9/11 the American people, not just the American government, are against the Arabs."

The signs of tension, and the hint of risk, are everywhere. The U.S. ambassador does not fly the American flag on his armor-plated BMW as he moves about Cairo. The press is more adversarial toward Washington than it's been in years, with the Egyptian Gazette suggesting in an editorial that the United States might use the "spoils of Iraq" -- oil -- to "tempt opponents into bowing to its militarism." The British, Israeli and American flags were burned during a downtown Cairo demonstration last month.

The risk of a deteriorating American-Arab relationship was underscored Monday by the slaying of Laurence Foley, an official of the U.S. Agency for International Development, outside his home in Amman, Jordan. Although a motive for the shooting was not immediately established, his death raised fears in the U.S. community that Americans themselves, rather than U.S. policy, could become the target of Arab anger.

"This is not a comfortable time to be associated with the Americans," said an Egyptian professional who has worked for the U.S. Embassy here for more than 20 years. "My friends don't say anything, [but] I know they don't approve. The other day my uncle, an old man, said to me, 'When are you going to finish with the Americans?' When you've got old, uninvolved people feeling like that, it's sad."

Despite the souring mood in the streets, resident Americans in Egypt, numbering about 16,000, encounter neither hostility nor difficulty in their daily lives, and American visitors are welcomed as graciously as ever by a people who have a justified reputation for friendliness and moderation. It is not hatred that is in the air. It is anger, disappointment, disillusionment and defensiveness.

"We took a hit with the Israeli peace treaty in '79," an Egyptian journalist said. "We weren't ready for it. But we came around to the view that, well, maybe we'll get something out of this. We didn't. Then the alliance with the United States, and we said, 'Oh well, at least you offer us protection.' Now, after Afghanistan, the green light for Israel to do as it pleases to the Palestinians, the plans for war on Iraq, there are educated Egyptians seriously asking if we're next on your attack list."

The emotional underpinning of Arab-American relations remains the Palestinian question. Arabs accept that the United States has a special relationship with Israel. But they believe the Bush administration's unstinting support of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his tough military and economic actions in the Palestinian territories negate any sense of evenhandedness. What they see forming is an anti-Arab Israeli-American partnership.

"If there is an attack on Iraq, the reaction on the Arab street depends on a couple of things," said Edward S. Walker Jr., president of the Middle East Institute in Washington and a former ambassador to both Israel and Egypt. "One is if Israel were to join in and the Arabs saw the war as one of Israeli aggression rather than one to liberate the Iraqi people [as Washington contends]. If that happened, we'd lose an embassy or two."

Popular antagonism toward the United States puts many Arab governments in a delicate position. Most despise Iraqi President Saddam Hussein but want to avoid losing credibility with their people or alienating Washington. They've let controlled demonstrations and the state-run media condemn U.S. actions, but they gave Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri the cold shoulder on his recent tour of Arab capitals seeking support.

"If it comes down to war, we are not going to allow our strategic friendship with the United States to be jeopardized," Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher told the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington last month.

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