Obama’s Message Resonates in Egypt – To a Point
U.S. President-elect Barack Obama“s message of hope and change has been inspiring not only Americans but millions across the globe. His election has proved the success of true democratic systems in which empowered citizens can change the face of their politics. But for many Egyptians, whose apathy toward their own political system runs rampant, the hope and change that Obama represents seems worlds away.
The U.S. presidential elections were almost as hot a topic on the streets of Cairo as they were in Washington, DC, and the vast majority of Egyptians supported Obama. They are optimistic that the Obama presidency will change how America interacts with Egypt and the Middle East as a whole. However, while many Egyptians have high hopes for Obama in this regard, they can only look outside for inspiration in a country where they see little prospect for change in their own political status quo.
Stuck in downtown Cairo”s daily afternoon traffic jam, a taxi driver explained that he never votes in elections because he does not have the time. “How can I feed my family if I am voting? I need to work.” Moreover, he added “why wait in the traffic, the lines, and the heat, when my vote does not change anything?”
On another level, the manager of a local gym was surprised to hear that President George W. Bush was not running for re-election, and was astonished by the fact that U.S. presidents can sit for only two terms. He was also curious as to how “George Bush the Father” was able to transfer power to his son. Many Egyptians expect the current president”s son, Gamal Mubarak, to take the reins when his father, President Hosni Mubarak, either dies or has to step down for health reasons.
Mubarak has held office since former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981. He is currently serving his fifth six-year-term.
Unsurprisingly, Egypt”s most recent presidential elections in September 2005 resulted in Mubarak winning upwards of 88 percent of the vote, with a low voter turnout rate and widely-reported cases of obstructions to judicial oversight, voter intimidation and fraud. Egypt”s Emergency Law, in effect since Mubarak took office, provides the government with sweeping powers that undermine the rule of law and allow for swift and decisive silencing of political opposition.
With Egypt”s political status quo, it is not surprising that most Egyptians have little faith that a better political future for their country is on the horizon. For now, they will have to live vicariously through the hope and the change that America”s new president has promised to bring.
And so, Egyptians watched on their satellite televisions as 64.1 percent of Americans, the highest percentage in recent history, lined up around dark city blocks in order to cast their ballots. In less than 24 hours, Americans were able to change not only their president but the course of their country”s history.
But even these captivating images may not be enough to cure the despair which the Egyptian government”s stranglehold has spawned. An Egyptian professor at the American University in Cairo explained recently that although he was pleased with Obama”s election, he was also scared. “There are such high hopes for Obama, but if he fails, what hope will we have left?”
Joseph Simons is a fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA) at the American University in Cairo.