Losing ’Hope And Faith’ In The West

Eman Morsi, a 22-year-old Egyptian, is a teacher’s assistant in the English literature department at Cairo University and writes for the English-language Egyptian newspaper  The Daily Star. She will also soon help launch a blog at the  Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights , a human rights group based in Cairo. We spoke as she came through Washington on, of all things, a State Department-sponsored visit for Arab political science and American studies academics.

TomPaine: At the beginning of 2005, when Hosni Mubarak first announced that multi-candidate presidential elections would take place, through the elections, what was the mood in Egypt regarding elections and political freedom?

Eman Morsi: Throughout the campaigns for the presidential elections, the campaigns for the parliamentary elections and the first two stages of the parliamentary elections there was an unprecedented (well, not since the end of the monarchy) feeling of political freedom.

People went out into the streets in support of the candidate of their choice and against the other candidates, including President Mubarak.

Kifaya, the [secular] leftist opposition movement, forged alliances with other oppositions parties and even with the religious/conservative Muslim Brotherhood, and the one goal that it had set for itself, getting rid of the president, seemed possible.

Opposition groups of all trends united, and the infamously inactive Egyptian public for once seemed to become more politically involved than ever before.

In short, things seemed to be greatly improving and many were optimistic about the future and the outcome of this fresh breath of democracy. (Though, one thing has to be kept in mind, most people believed that Mubarak was going to remain president but saw this chance for a multi-candidate election as a great first step towards a truly democratic Egyptian state.)

TP: Did people give credit to Bush for pressuring Mubarak?

EM: This is a bit complicated. It was a well-known fact that the Mubarak regime has decided to hold these elections as a result of the U.S.’s threat that all Middle East countries should either become democratic or they will face the same destiny as Iraq.

For this reason, all through the presidential campaign, the president and his ministers and influential and important party leaders would make statements about how this is a reform that is stemming from the inside, from the needs of the Egyptian public, not from the outside, but, well, nobody bought that government bullshit!

I believe that it was generally looked at in this manner: On the one hand, all people were insulted at being ordered around like that, after all we are not a colony, we are a sovereign state, while on the other, many people, though not happy with how this change was forced on us, were glad that for once the American hegemony is working for the benefit of our people and country.

TP: What happened to the opposition after the elections and how did this affect how people perceived Bush?

EM: After the elections there was a crackdown on all opposition figures. Brotherhood, Kifaya, and other party members were arrested and some reported being physically and sexually abused. Ayman Nour, the one who came second in the [presidential] elections after Mubarak and the head of the liberal al-Ghad party, was sentenced to five years in prison on a bogus accusation while a statement issued by the interior ministry and a broadcast on state-owned television reminded people that under the current Emergency Law (which has been around since 1981 when Mubarak took over) demonstrating is prohibited and any protestors will be arrested.

At the beginning, the U.S. government tried to interfere, like when Rice demanded Nour be released, but then the U.S. started having real problems with the rising insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, and so Mubarak and his regime used their ever-successful pressure card of how, if they didn’t do what they were doing, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood will take over, and Egypt will turn into another fundamental anti-American country.

It is at this point that the U.S. started changing policies and became more pro-preserving the status quo. This change was seen as a green light by the Egyptian government, allowing it to continue with its oppressive policies and made many opposition figures very pessimistic about the future. The general view with regard to the issue became that the American government doesn’t really want to spread democracy or freedom, but rather make sure that the region would remain under its control.

TP: Since the elections, has the situation become more extreme? Is popular support for radical or extreme Islam growing?

EM: The U-turn in the U.S.’s attitude towards spreading democracy and freedom in the Middle East has resulted in the decrease of the popularity of all Western ideals and political theories. This in turn made people head towards more traditional and often fundamentalist outlets. Thus, while our already-weak secular opposition lost whatever ground it still had, the Muslim Brotherhood gained more support, sincre from the beginning it didn’t link itself, unlike secular opposition groups, with any Western concepts such as liberalism or socialism.

Nowadays more and more people are embracing anything that is non-Western. This comes as an expected reaction towards the spread of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejuidices in the West.

In addition to that, the Bush administration makes things worse every now and then and pushes more Middle Easterners towards fundamentalism when Bush or any other of his assistants come out and make statements like the war being a “crusade” or “Islamic fascism” or referring to works that propagate the theory of the clash of civilizations.

Every day that passes by, Bush, Rice, Cheney, et al. make people in the Middle East lose hope and faith in concepts that have originated in the West, and pushes them towards violent, fundamental beliefs.

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