CAIRO, March 23 -- The students crowded into an alley near Cairo University last week, took their last sips of Coca-Cola and ceremoniously tossed hundreds of empty cans into a smoky pit. They had signed petitions to boycott all U.S. products.
A few miles away, at the McDonald's outside the gates of American University, students gobbled burgers and lounged in a booth, cell phones in their pockets, fries in their fingers, American hip-hop star Ja Rule playing on a compact disc.
The conflict was evident. As Egypt watched grainy images of U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles slamming into buildings in Iraq, young people in the capital were feeling mixed emotions about the United States, a country whose influence and culture are everywhere.
In interviews around Cairo, young Egyptians repeatedly described their reactions in conflicting terms. They love American culture but are horrified by the U.S. war in Iraq. They said they felt betrayed by a country they looked up to for its ideals of freedom, democracy and fairness.
They like so many things about the United States that they had trouble picking only three favorites. A group of female students at the American University whittled down their list to singer Jennifer Lopez's purple-tinted sunglasses, funky jeans from funky stores and just about any movie featuring Brad Pitt.
The students are captivated by American action movies and hip-hop music. They watch the programs that have the highest ratings here, both imports from U.S. television -- "Friends" and "Sex and the City." They don't want to give any of it up, even though they feel they should.
"We don't know what to think. Should we love America or should we hate them now?" lamented Heba Ahmed, 18, who wore a red Gap sweater. She is studying commerce and English at Cairo University.
"It's like being stood up," said Eman Abdallah, 18, a political science major at Cairo University.
The things they hated the most about the United States weren't as hard to pick: the blind eye they say the country is turning to the Palestinian cause, and now President Bush and the war on Iraq.
"We were in awe of America, and now, we are bitter, confused. The admiration is gone," said Yomna Samy, 18, who once wanted to move to Northern Virginia, where her Egyptian American cousins live in a town house.
Egypt is a youthful nation -- 57 percent of the Egypt's 71 million people are under 25. An Egyptian baby is born every 23.7 seconds. And anyone over 40 is a venerated elder.
Government officials are worried about extremist groups finding recruits among Egypt's increasingly anti-American college students. But many young Egyptians are more moderate than militant. Still, they say Bush's actions in Iraq are making them far angrier with the United States than they ever thought they would be.
"It's always been very easy to love the United States," said Aghaby Zarif, 22, who was studying for a marketing midterm over a Big Mac. "Now it's also easy to hate them."
His friends cautioned that the war was launched by the U.S. government, not by the people and the culture he admires.
"But it still hurts," said Zarif, who was wearing jeans and a Ralph Lauren sweater. "I used to say I would do anything to visit America. Now they won't even let me in. They would call me a terrorist."
Boycotts of U.S. products are nothing new in the Arab world. Egyptian businesses have been trying to capitalize on these movements for years. For instance, a fast-food chain called Mo'men, which means "believer" in Arabic, opened in 1998 as a substitute for McDonald's. The chain's outlets are almost always packed. They sell American-style foods such as chicken nuggets alongside traditional Egyptian dishes.
The rival chains are doing well, and American companies report small losses in profit. But McDonald's -- even during the recent war -- still has a stream of customers.
Outside American University, employees at the Egyptian-run McDonald's said they were worried about an attack on their restaurant. There has been rioting at American chain restaurants in the past, so they decided to hang a poster declaring support for Palestine.
"These are strange times, that is true," said Fathey Ahmed, who delivers McDonald's Happy Meals on a motorcycle around Cairo. "Years ago, I wouldn't have thought it was strange to work for an American business. Now I don't know what to think."
With that, he drove off to deliver burgers and fries to a group of students who had ordered the food. But he couldn't get through because of a massive protest organized by the students against the war.
Staff researcher Robert Thomason contributed to this report.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company