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Arabs are more nuanced in judging America's behavior
Arabs are more nuanced in judging America's behavior
For more than two decades, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been the core element that has shaped Arab public opinion of the United States. But the tenure of President George W. Bush and the Barack Obama phenomenon have taught us that new factors are now shaping how millions of Arabs view the US.
Tuesday, June 1,2010 10:43
by Mohamed A.B. Yossif dailystar.com.ib

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For more than two decades, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been the core element that has shaped Arab public opinion of the United States. But the tenure of President George W. Bush and the Barack Obama phenomenon have taught us that new factors are now shaping how millions of Arabs view the US. 

Obama secured very high approval ratings in the Arab region early in his presidency, especially after the speech he gave in Cairo in June 2009. More recently, however, polls have suggested that a majority of Arabs does not believe that Obama is serious about the promises he gave then to improve US policy in the region. 

The problem with most of these polls is that they usually give us an unrealistic view of Arab attitudes toward the US since they assume that the Palestinian-Israeli peace process is the only factor affecting Arab opinion of Washington. But since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, millions of Arabs have started to judge the US through a more nuanced perspective based on three main pillars.

The first pillar is US relations with Arab regimes. Millions of Arabs realized that Washington’s support for authoritarian regimes in the region has been an important contributor to the growing radicalization of the Arab community. They’ve understood that the absence of democracy equals unemployment and poverty and that Israel’s brutal and irresponsible policies in Palestine and Lebanon are not the only causes of their daily problems, the poor standard of education, the low salaries or corrupt governments. 

Some scholars disagree that democracy promotion is now one of the most important factors shaping Arab attitudes toward the US. But if we were to ask the 40 percent of Egyptians who live under the poverty line what they need now, they would answer that they need a government that works to achieve social justice. Hence, what are their reactions when they see American officials praising the Egyptian government’s “performance” in economic reform?

Meanwhile, Arab civil society, independent media and reformers – which now have a crucial role in forging and influencing Arab public debate – are advocating day and night for US pressure on Arab regimes to begin political reform. That too has led to a prioritization of democracy promotion in the wish list of Arab citizens when they think about the US and the West in general. 

The second pillar is what the Obama administration calls “the US relationship with the Muslim world”, which he talked about in his speech in Cairo. The problem here is that it has remained talk. The Obama administration has tried to improve America’s image among Muslims with rhetoric alone and has exhibited no clear and comprehensive strategy. A year after the Cairo speech, Obama is less popular in some countries, according to a survey conducted by the BBC last April. In Egypt alone, 55 percent said they did not see any progress in American relations with the Muslim world. 

The third pillar, the classic one, is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This used to be the main priority in terms of Arab opinion about the US, but things are different today. Divisions between the Palestinian factions and the decline and politicization of the resistance movement have muted reactions in the Arab world regarding what is happening in the West Bank and Gaza. 

It is worth mentioning that the demonstrations that took place in Egypt during the recent waves of clashes in Jerusalem because of Israeli violation of the Aqsa Mosque were organized by the Muslim Brotherhood in an attempt by the group to flex its muscles and signal to the Egyptian regime that it can mobilize the public if it needs to. The rest of the Egyptian public, however, did not give the same attention to what was happening in Jerusalem when compared to the attention given to the second intifada in 2002. 

It should be clear, then, that Arab public opinion of the US is passing through a transitional phase where new and more complex standards are being used to judge American polices. Over the last two decades, authoritarian regimes have worked hard to manipulate the US image in the eyes of the Arab public, but with the rise of new media and the presence of an estimated 100 million youth, Arab citizens are trying to develop their own image. That should be of the utmost concern to Washington as it ponders its next moves in the Middle East.

Mohamed A.B. Yossif is a Cairo-based journalist.This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-

international.org, an online newsletter that publishes views of Middle Eastern and Islamic issues.



tags: Bush / Obama / 9/11 / Unemployment / Arabs / Muslims / Poverty / West Bank / Gaza / Aqsa / Middle East / Intifada / Jerusalem / Egyptian Regime / / Palestinian-Israeli Conflict / Bush Administration / Obama Administration / Moderate Muslim Brotherhood /
Posted in Democracy  
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