When anti-Americanism is this popular in Egypt, Washington should stay as far away as it can.
This week, Hosni Mubarak's old media boss, Abdel Latif el-Menawy, published an astonishing essay on the website of the Saudi-funded, Emirati-based satellite television station Al Arabiya. Menawy described a wild conspiracy in which the U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, directed Muslim Brotherhood snipers to murder Egyptian soldiers.
It would be easy to dismiss the ravings of an old Mubarak hand if they were not almost tame compared with the wild rumors and allegations across much of the Egyptian media and public. Even longtime observers of Egyptian rhetoric have been taken aback by the vitriol and sheer lunacy of the current wave of anti-American rhetoric. The streets have been filled with fliers, banners, posters, and graffiti denouncing President Barack Obama for supporting terrorism and featuring Photoshopped images of Obama with a Muslim-y beard or bearing Muslim Brotherhood colors.
A big Tahrir Square banner declaring love for the American people alongside hatred for Obama rings somewhat false given the fierce, simultaneous campaign against CNN and American journalists. The rhetoric spans the political spectrum: veteran leftist George Ishaq (Patterson "is an evil lady"), the Salafi Front (calling for demonstrations at the U.S. Embassy against foreign interference), the reckless secularist TV host Tawfik Okasha (whipping up xenophobic hatred), leaders of the Tamarod campaign (refusing to meet with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns because the United States "supports terrorism"), and Brotherhood leaders (blaming the United States for the military coup).
The tsunami of anti-American rhetoric swamping Egypt has been justified as a legitimate response to Washington's supposed support for the now-deposed Muslim Brotherhood government. There is no doubt that many Egyptians on both sides are indeed enraged with U.S. policy toward Egypt. Nor is there any doubting the intensity of the anti-Brotherhood fever to which Washington has so effectively been linked. Nor, finally, could anyone really disagree that the United States has failed to effectively engage with or explain itself to the intensely polarized and mobilized new Egyptian public.
Still, there is clearly more going on than just a response to current U.S. policies. Hostile media campaigns and anti-American sentiments long predate the rise of Mohamed Morsy and his Muslim Brotherhood. Mubarak's regime made an art form of using the state media to bash America while pliantly going along with American policies. Those legacies have left enduring habits of political thought. Today's rhetoric and methods feel eerily familiar, even with their turbocharged energy and distinctive tropes. The overall effect is High Mubarakism, in which state and "independent" media churn up anti-Americanism, anti-Islamism, and extreme nationalism to legitimate the state's rule.
What's new is the intensity of the anti-Brotherhood views around which the campaign is built. This cements a widespread acceptance of these populist messages and methods among many Egyptians who would have angrily scorned them under Mubarak. The polarizing dynamics are fueled, at least among the politically engaged public, by jingoistic media and by the amplifying, accelerating effects of social media. A handful of liberal voices and veteran revolutionaries are pushing back on this trend, but they are swimming against a fierce tide for now. They will likely seem prescient should those activists who try to challenge the new government find themselves targeted through use of the same discourse, just as they were under Mubarak and by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in 2011.
Egypt's resurgent nationalism offers a potent lesson in the darker side of the new Arab public sphere. The proliferation of satellite television and social media has undeniably given a new platform to individual voices, protest movements, and contentious public debate. But the same platform is equally available to regimes, to illiberal forces of both Islamist and secularist varieties, and to populists of all description. The new media environment has proved ideal for the rapid, unchecked spread of rumors and allegations, for the enforcement of the new party line, and for the mobilization of rage against alleged enemies of the state -- whether American, Brotherhood, Palestinian, Syrian, or Turkish.
While this virulent Egyptian populism has many targets, Washington remains a distinctly valued target. Denouncing the United States is politically useful to every Egyptian faction. The SCAF, like Mubarak, finds anti-Americanism useful in masking its strong relationship with Washington. Secular elites and felool ("remnants" of Mubarak's regime) find it useful in deflecting attention from their own return to grace. The Muslim Brotherhood finds it useful in returning to the movement's own anti-American comfort zone. Anti-Brotherhood activists find it useful as a way of appealing to nationalist public opinion to justify support for the coup. (Leaders of the anti-Morsy Tamarod campaign have been notably enthusiastic about this extreme state-nationalist agenda.)
The anti-American rhetoric that has always flowed freely through the Egyptian media has been mirrored in public opinion. Again, this long predates Egypt's revolution or the election of a Muslim Brotherhood government. In May 2008, only 4 percent of Egyptians agreed that the "United States will allow people in this region to fashion their own political future as they see fit without direct U.S. influence," while only 6 percent approved of the leadership in Washington, according to polling by Gallup. This changed very briefly after Obama's election and his June 2009 speech at Cairo University, as approval of the United States in Gallup polling peaked in mid-2009 at 37 percent. But that number crashed below even George W. Bush levels within a year. In late 2011 (well before Morsy or the Muslim Brotherhood took power), over 70 percent of Egyptians opposed U.S. economic aid to Egypt. Back when the SCAF (not Morsy) aggressively prosecuted (and the media demonized) U.S.-funded NGOs, virtually nobody -- including the NGOs -- was willing to stand up and defend such aid. Few Egyptians think they will suffer politically by bashing America.
Washington has clearly struggled to respond effectively to this hostile, polarized, and intensely mobilized arena. It isn't clear that any alternative course would have been received more positively, given the public mood. In my view, Washington was right to focus on the democratic process rather than supporting individual groups, whether the Brotherhood or secular activists. It was clearly right to give the Muslim Brotherhood the chance to govern when it won elections. It was right to try to keep a low profile and not be seen as trying to shape Egyptian political outcomes. But Washington also made many mistakes, of course, such as being overly accommodating in public toward the SCAF in the first year and a half of the transition and toward President Morsy when he took inflammatory and anti-democratic measures. And the Obama administration consistently failed to communicate these principles in a way compelling to the Egyptian public.
For many months -- particularly after Morsy's November constitutional power grab -- a wide range of Egyptian and American analysts had urged the administration to speak out more clearly in defense of liberal values and push the Morsy government harder in public on human rights and tolerance. This would have been the right public stance. But nothing short of full-throated endorsement of one side's position would likely have been heard amid the din of Egypt's polarized politics. It's easy to see why Washington's attempt at a low profile and evenhandedness managed to antagonize both sides. There's little tolerance for those in the middle when every Egyptian political trend has adopted the classic Bush position of "you're either with us or against us."
Typically, this would be the time for me to call for renewed public diplomacy to try to combat anti-American misconceptions and convince Egyptians of American intentions. But let's be real. American efforts to push back against the most outlandish allegations are certainly worthwhile, but have obvious limitations. No, American battleships are not moving toward Egypt to launch an invasion. No, Ambassador Patterson did not conspire with the Muslim Brotherhood or offer to sell the pyramids to Israel. No, Obama is not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and isn't going to be impeached over secret payments to them. All well and good, but entrenched opinion is unlikely to be moved.
What about the broader arsenal of public diplomacy? Once upon a time, the expensive American Arabic-language satellite television Alhurra was supposed to be the kind of news source that would break through such a hostile media fog. But as has been the case since its launch, it has made virtually no difference or impact on the Egyptian debate. Nor does it appear that the much-touted digital diplomacy, whether Facebook pages or Twitter feeds, has made many inroads into a public debate dominated naturally enough by Egyptians themselves. When such online accounts have made news, it has usually been for the wrong reason.
A much broader, more vigorous effort to engage publicly and privately across all Egyptian political groups and segments of the population in the last few years is always good advice. Now isn't really the moment, though. Accusations of having met with U.S. officials are once again a valued currency in Egyptian politics. Efforts to engage either with the U.S. Embassy or with high-level visitors like Deputy Secretary Burns just give the invitees the opportunity to grandstand by ostentatiously refusing to meet them.
Public diplomacy isn't going to solve America's Egypt problem, I'm afraid. This emphatically does not mean that Washington should ignore Egyptian voices or give up on efforts at broader, deeper engagement, though. Washington should pay close attention to what it is hearing from the Egyptian public, even while recognizing the politics driving those messages. It is never a good idea for U.S. policy to hunker down, convinced by its own messaging or dismissive of widely circulating ideas or critiques.
The overwhelming lesson of the last few years should be that publics matter, in all their variety and internal contradictions, even if it is difficult to predict exactly how or where their impact will manifest. Public diplomacy should be seen here as a long-term strategic investment, not as a quick fix. The Obama administration should certainly engage more broadly with a wide cross-section of Egyptian opinion and craft a more compelling narrative to make sense of its seemingly contradictory policies. It should do so even as it understands that little it says or does will make any immediate difference in Egypt's highly polarized, intensely politicized public sphere, where anti-Americanism is a surefire and cost-free political winner.
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