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
"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
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
"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,
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
"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
"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.
Like other U.S. allies in the region, Jordan is bending to American influence,
at least in part because Arab regimes are fragile and the voice of the Arab world
on the global stage is weak.
Many of its neighbors have acknowledged that the U.S. might use their facilities
in a war against Iraq.
Egypt is likely to give the U.S. military the same access to the Suez Canal
and airspace as during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. It is not known if it would
allow the United States to use its Cairo West airport for refueling and troop
transits, as it did in 1991.
A war in Iraq, however, is one that no Arab leader wants. Egyptian President
Hosni Mubarak, whose government gets $2 billion a year in financial assistance
from Washington, has said he fears the Bush administration does not comprehend
the chaos an attack on Iraq could unleash in the Middle East.
Mubarak's aides dismiss as naive and uninformed comments by President Bush's
national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, that the Arab world would see a "march
to democracy" if Hussein was removed from power.
"The perception among Arabs is that the peace has been damaged, and maybe destroyed,
by the United States letting Israel do anything it wants," said Hafez abu Saada,
secretary-general of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights.
"But I think the anti-American mood is only temporary. If Bush tomorrow ordered
Israel out of the occupied territories and reestablished Palestine, guaranteeing
security for both states, I think the feelings against America would change immediately."
Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times