An Open Letter to the United States of America

Some unsolicited thoughts from an Egyptian revolutionary.

Dear Americans,

I have a confession to make: While the whole world was transfixed by us, yet again, due to that whole attacking-the-embassy business, I was going through a tumultuous emotional journey, alternating between bewilderment, horror and shock-based laughter, ending with the most unexpected of feelings: pride. I must say that currently I am filled with a sense of ironic pride for my country and my revolution, for the status both have achieved over the past 19 months. The attention and importance given to Egypt, well, it has been nothing short of overwhelming. We sure have wowed you.

Sure, the scenes on your screens might be so disturbing that some of you openly wondered whether we are going through a second revolution or something, but let me assure you with both facts and personal experience: There is no second revolution, there are no open riots on the streets. The action was totally confined to a 250-meter radius around the embassy, with people going to eat, drink, and smoke shisha within earshot of the fighting. For most Egyptians, this whole video thing didn't affect us at all. And after the initial clashes, the majority of the 2,500 young dudes stationed around the embassy were soccer fans -- the Zamalak Ultras -- who were there simply to do what they do best: battle with the police. The rest of us just went about our lives.

Sure, there are scary indications of things to come, like the attack on a multinational peacekeepers' camp in Sinai, where the al Qaeda flag was hoisted, the same flag now being sold on T-shirts in Tahrir Square. Then there's the arrest of Alber Saber, a guy whose crime was sharing the trailer of Innocence of Muslims on his Facebook page while being a Copt and an atheist as well, and whose house was attacked by a mob (ironically, just like in the movie), but such things are trivialities compared with our other problems.

Here's what I'm talking about: Egypt's becoming way too much like Pakistan for comfort. We are slowly becoming a dangerous, broken rogue state, just like them. Just this week, we had a Salafi member of the Constituent Assembly (the people who are writing our new constitution) talking about efforts to remove or change the law to lower the legal marriage age for girls to the moment they reach puberty and have their first period, even if they are as young as 9 years old. Yes: We might end up having a constitution that grants us child marriages. And you thought you had a culture war.

I know what you're thinking: How can you possibly be proud of all this?

As an Egyptian, the most fascinating aspect of all of this has to be our effect on the American elections, and how we suddenly became an important campaign issue in the snoozefest that is Obama vs. Romney. Isn't it crazy that Obama -- he of the message of peace and understanding with the Muslim world -- must now contend with Islamist rage fueled by those whom he -- and a million thinkers, analysts, and pundits - has referred to as a moderate Islamic group, the Muslim Brotherhood. That's the same moderate Islamic group whose people met with his people more than 14 times this past year and a half, who convinced them that America should support them because Salafis and liberals are unpredictable and unreliable, and because the Brothers alone can bring peace to the region. That's the same moderate Islamic group that actually called for and facilitated the protests at the U.S. Embassy on the anniversary of 9/11, all while pretending to have nothing to do with it to the English-speaking world. The same moderate Islamic group that now controls nearly all aspects of the Egyptian government, and the source of his current dilemma.

How is it that, in just four years, Obama went being from the American president who called in Cairo for a new beginning with Muslims to the target of hostile chants by religious extremists storming U.S. embassies across the Islamic world ("Obama, Obama, we are all Osama"). If this ends up becoming a hot campaign issue, and Obama loses, pundits and historians will say that the Obama presidency started with Egypt and ended because of Egypt. As an Egyptian political geek always enamored with international political theater, how can I not be proud of that? How awesome is that?

The icing on the cake in this whole affair has to be the role the Brotherhood played in this attack, and how it provides fantastic fodder for conspiracy theorists and political analysts alike. Here is what we know: A bunch of Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi figures started making an issue of this movie, which no one heard of before, a few days before the anniversary of 9/11. Both the Brotherhood and various Salafi groups called for protests at the U.S. Embassy on the anniversary of 9/11.

That day, a friend who works for the embassy informed me, the employees who left at 4 p.m. noticed that both the police and the army forces protecting the embassy had vanished, followed by the attack that you all watched on your plasma TV screens. Over the next few days, the Brotherhood would praise the attackers in the Arabic media and condemn them in their English language media, prompting a testy exchange between the U.S. Embassy and the MB's English Twitter account and Obama's remark that he no longer views Egypt as an ally.

The Brotherhood and its sympathizers went into damage-control mode, asking the world to understand the depth of Muslim anger and blaming the affair on the Interior Ministry, which had assured them everything was cool. So why didn't the army -- which President Mohamed Morsy supposedly now controls -- step in? And why hasn't Morsy fired a single Interior Ministry employee?

Meanwhile, we now have a call from the justice minister to reinstate the emergency law -- again -- and a call to boycott Google, which is so absurd it's hilarious. Will the Brotherhood be throwing Gmail account-deletion parties?

How did we get here? What happened to all those images of cute, flag-waving Westernized-looking Egyptian girls? How did the face of Egypt become the bearded image of Mohamed Morsy? Have we gone from your favorite world drama and the subject of a million social media conferences and think-tank panels to being another cautionary tale, the harbinger of bad things to come, and now a threat to Barack Obama's re-election? My little country, my beloved Egypt, did all of this with one peaceful revolution. Imagine.

OK. Maybe "revolution" isn't the right word for what we did. Because let's face it: the "revolution" is now over for the time being. My secular-minded revolutionary friends have become so traumatized and exhausted by the abuse they've endured at the hands of the army and police that they are now solely focused on holding those institutions accountable, instead of doing the broader work of trying to create the country of rights and freedoms of their dreams. Sure, it is safe to say that with Islamists in power, child brides are nothing but a taste of the horror we are bound to see over the coming years. As someone who fought on the front lines in Tahrir Square and even ran for parliament at the height of my revolutionary exuberance, all this breaks my heart in ways I can't even begin to describe.

But, hey: At least we're still making headlines, and maybe we're even going to overthrow YOUR leader this year. And surely that counts for something.

Best Regards,

Mahmoud Salem

Egyptian Revolutionary



Wait, You Still Don't Like Us?

Why the Muslim world hasn't warmed toward America over the past four years.

Anti-Americanism in the Muslim world, an issue that was front and center throughout much of the George W. Bush era, is squarely back in the news following the protests that swept across more than 20 countries in reaction to a controversial anti-Islam film. The all-too-familiar images of angry demonstrators burning the Stars and Stripes are a dramatic reminder that, while the image of the United States has improved throughout many parts of the world during Barack Obama's presidency, negative views of America remain stubbornly persistent in key Muslim countries. Much of this animosity is due to continuing concerns about U.S. power and widespread opposition to major elements of American foreign policy. But it's not just about the United States -- rather, anti-Americanism needs to be seen within a broader context of distrust between Muslims and the West.

Following his election, Obama made it a priority to change America's dismal image in the Muslim world, most prominently in his June 2009 Cairo speech. And he has had some successes; in fact, Muslim publics still generally give him more positive ratings than Bush received. For instance, in a spring 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project, only 24 percent of Turks express confidence in Obama; still, that's a whole lot better than the 2 percent who felt this way about Bush during his final year in office. Also, due in part to having lived there for a few years as a child, Obama has consistently received high marks in Indonesia, and his popularity has helped turn around America's image in the world's most populous Muslim nation.

But overall, the picture remains grim. In Egypt, for example, despite all the tumult of the revolution, America's image remains roughly where it was four years ago -- then 22 percent expressed a favorable opinion of the United States; in the 2012 poll, it was 19 percent. Among Pakistanis and Jordanians, America's already poor ratings have declined further since 2008 -- in both countries, 19 percent held a positive view of the U.S. four years ago, compared with just 12 percent in 2012.

Why hasn't America's image improved? In part, many Muslims around the world continue to voice the same criticisms of U.S. foreign policy that were common in the Bush years. U.S. anti-terrorism efforts are still widely unpopular. America is still seen as ignoring the interests of other countries. Few think Obama has been even-handed in dealing with the Israelis and the Palestinians. And the current administration's increased reliance on drone strikes to target extremists is overwhelmingly unpopular -- more than 80 percent of Jordanians, Egyptians, and Turks oppose the drone campaign.

The opposition to drone strikes points to a broader issue: a widespread distrust of American power. This is especially true when the United States employs hard power, whether it's the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or the drone attacks in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. But it is true even for elements of American soft power. Predominantly Muslim nations are generally among the least likely to embrace U.S. popular culture or the spread of American ideas and customs. Only 36 percent of Egyptians like American music, movies, and television, and just 11 percent believe it is good that U.S. ideas and customs are spreading to their country.

But America's image problems are not due solely to fears of American power. In some ways, the issue of anti-Americanism is part of a broader story about mutual distrust between Muslims and Westerners. Polling by Pew in 2006 and 2011 highlighted the extent to which Muslim and Western publics see their relations with each other as bad, and the degree to which they blame each other for the poor state of affairs.

In the West, fears about extremism and violence continue to play a role in driving these views. Among Muslims, many describe Westerners as selfish, greedy, and violent, and the 2011 poll found majorities of Muslims in Egypt, the Palestinian territories, Pakistan, and Turkey saying that both Americans and Europeans tend to be hostile toward Muslims. Also, large numbers of Muslims surveyed in 2011 blamed Western policies for the lack of prosperity in Muslim nations.

Just like the headlines from the past week, the survey data paint a fairly bleak picture. The "Obama effect" that changed America's battered image in Europe and other parts of the globe did not register in many predominantly Muslim nations. Even so, there are some hopeful signs. For one thing, it is important to keep in mind that the "Muslim world" is not monolithic. In the 2012 Pew survey, two-thirds of Lebanese Sunni Muslims expressed a positive view of the United States. In newly democratic Tunisia, opinions were equally divided, with 45 percent giving the United States a positive rating and 45 percent a negative one. Previous polling found largely positive views of the United States among Muslims in Indonesia and Nigeria following Obama's election.

Moreover, some aspects of American soft power are appealing to Muslim publics. American-style business is especially popular in Arab nations. Indeed, among the 21 nations included in spring 2012 survey, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunisia were the only countries where more than half said they like American ways of doing business. And even though U.S. democracy-promotion efforts have been met with skepticism by many Muslims over the last decade, America's democratic tradition continues to have some appeal. Six-in-ten Tunisians and more than four-in-ten Egyptians, Jordanians, and Lebanese say they like American ideas about democracy. And young people are especially likely to embrace these ideas. Some 72 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds like U.S.-style democracy in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began.

Majorities or pluralities in six predominantly Muslim nations surveyed by Pew in 2012 said democracy is the best form of government, and polling has consistently shown that Muslims in countries throughout the world support specific features of democracy, including institutions such as a free press and multiparty elections that serve as cornerstones of Western democratic systems.

So while many Muslims continue to oppose U.S. policies and remain uneasy about American power, many also want to see their own countries adopt some central features of American society. And that's, at least, a bit of good news.