Sunday, June 7, 2009

Obama in Cairo

Thursday was a strange day. I was not woken up early in the morning by the sound of heavy Cairo traffic, nor did I really hear many of the normal sounds I would hear on a daily basis in Cairo. I left my apartment in Garden City around 10:30 that morning in an attempt to go to my favorite street side café in Doqi, eat some breakfast, and hopefully watch Obama’s speech. I wanted to see how Egyptians were going to react to what he said more than I really cared about what Obama had to say.
The first thing I saw as I left my apartment was an empty city without the normal honks and humming of vehicles in the streets. As I turned the corner of my street I saw a young Egyptian man with a police officer next to him looking through his video camera to make sure he had not been videotaping the mass groups of police officers throughout the city. With my camera bag in hand I walked by and continued to Kobri el-Gamaa (el-Gamaa Bridge) where I saw police turning people away, telling them that the bridge was closed. Feigning ignorance of Arabic I continued to try to cross the bridge. When a police officer stopped me and heard me speak English, he realized I was an American and waved me through, only to be stopped 5 feet later by a higher ranking officer. Continuing to play off the tourist role, I explain where I was going and the officer made me get into a taxi to continue my trek to the other side of the river. No one was to be walking on the bridge that Obama would be crossing in a couple of hours.
Once in I was in the taxi and we started moving I began to speak Arabic to the driver. He started to laugh, understanding that a tourist can get away with many more things than an average Egyptian can in Egypt, thus, my reason for avoiding using Arabic around the police that day. As we conversed I looked at the rows of police lining both sides of the street and the divider in the center of the road all the way across the river and continuing all the way to Cairo University, where Obama was set to give his speech. When I arrived in Doqi, the area was completely abandoned besides a few open bodegas and a few people sitting on the curb. The government had declared that everyone should be at work before 7 am or be forced to stay home. In parts of Cairo closer to the airport, no one could even leave their house, open their windows, or even stand near their windows.
When I arrived at my destination, I found the café was closed. I decided to walk back downtown, to see if cafes a bit further away from the University were open. As I walk across Kobri Tahrir, there were less police, which allowed me to stop and look at the Nile. As I looked down the river I noticed only police boats patrolling back and forth, with all other boats docked along the banks. On the bridge I saw foreigners with cameras in hand walking in the direction of the university. These would be the only people allowed to stand at the gates of the university.
Once in the Downtown area, I found the same sight I had seen in Doqi, a complete shutdown, save for a few newspaper stands, and of course, the Hardy’s and the Pizza Hut. I decided I would listen to the speech at the hostel I stayed at when I first arrive in Egypt. When I arrived I noticed that my friend working there looked pissed off. It did not take long for me to realize the extent of his anger. He was ranting about how he wanted Obama to go home so that he, and the many others who did not even make it to work, could go get some food. He then turned on the radio and we listened to reporters speak about the mosque and palace Obama had just visited. Finally, after some time, Obama finally made his appearance at the university.
Throughout the speech I was not alone in the feeling of sheer frustration. Although Obama said a few things that I never heard come from the mouth of a US President, his tone sounded to me to hold the same western superiority that has always been in place here. Revising history to act as if only the Palestinians are using unlawful force, and ignoring the will of a people by forgetting that Hamas won a legitimate election, Obama attempted to walk a thin line between the Palestinians and the Israelis that offered no solutions, only the same ideally pragmatic proposals the US has attempted to broker. All the while there was ecstatic clapping from the audience and “I love you” being yelled in Arabic, as we sat listening to the radio, grimacing. Then about an hour later the speech ended.
A few minutes later the buzz of helicopters could be heard. As I looked up from the rooftop I was on, I saw 4 military helicopters flying low and doing maneuvers around the two diplomatic helicopters that had just left the university. It was only later that night as I sat in the same café I had attempted to go to in the morning that I saw clips of Obama at the Giza Pyramids, looking like a movie star in his short sleeve button up shirt and surrounded by security. It turns out that the military escorted was escorting him to a private walk around the pyramids and the sphinx. After that, he flew to the airport and left for Germany.
So went Obama’s visit: condensed, simplistic, and romanticized as connecting with the Middle East, but also like a tourist’s dream: clear streets, no (political) hasslers, and no conversation with the locals. No plans laid out, only promises to a people forced to stay indoors. Thus is the location Obama picked for his speech; a country that is meant only secondarily to be enjoyed by its own people. Some people have insisted that the section about democracy in Obama’s speech was meant as a message to Mubarak to loosen his grip on Egypt. To which I respond “it is nice that he can say it, but come time for the US to give Egypt it military aid, will that money be withheld after the police unlawfully round up opposition, or when live ammunition is fired into a crowed at an anti-government rally, or any such attacks on basic rights that occur all the time here. If we want to get a sense of how Obama thinks about democracy in the Middle East just wait and see how the White House responds if today the opposition bloc in Lebanon wins a majority. Then we can see what he really meant when he said Washington will support governments that reflect the will of the people.
While many were in jubilation over Obama’s visit and speech, others like my friend were just purely frustrated with the fact that he and others could not even go to get a bite to eat, while supposedly having a hand stretched out to them. With America coordinating security with Egypt, I wonder if it ever occurred to them to think what type of image shutting off Cairo for the president’s personal tour gives off. I know that at least for me, as I watched the helicopters fly over head, I was filled with a strange sense of domination.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Obama Comes Tomorrow

Obama comes tomorrow. This is the main news on the streets of Cairo. Many see it as a good thing, especially after eight years of particularly devastating policies carried out in the Middle East and elsewhere. In the liberal corners of the United States there is the same hope that Obama will bring change to foreign policy.

Since I am not in the United States I do not know what the anticipation for Obama’s speech is, or if there even is any, given that once Obama was elected many liberals assumed their complacency and have left it in Obama’s hands to bring policy change. I do know, however, that there are mixed reactions to Obama’s visit to Egypt by Egyptians. As I walked through Khan el-Khalili last night with some friends, many people expressed jubilation over Obama’s visit to Egypt. As one of my Egyptian friends said to me, “most Egyptians find one reason or another to like Obama.” He however was of a different opinion telling me that he does not see Obama making any major changes in the Middle East.

Obama’s visit itself has brought many problems that the US public and even Obama will not see on his visit, starting with his first step onto the Cairo University campus. That first step will be on newly paved ground, where a playground recently stood, but was flattened and paved so that the helicopter carrying Obama can land at the university. This will probably not be rebuilt and is now a bit of public space lost for good

Along with this, there has been massive police activity starting before I arrived on the 29th. Like any major political event in Egypt, the police are stationed, en masse, days before Obama is set to arrive, as intimidation for anyone who wants to express an opposing position to the Mubarak regime or embarrass it in front of its largest backer. As I walked around the park near Cairo University, I noticed at least 200 police officers surrounding the park and sitting in the back of the large trucks. These trucks will be used to haul dissidence away to State Security for detention and torture tomorrow. My Egyptian friends have expressed that they or people they know have already been harassed by police officers to make sure there will be no disturbances tomorrow. An article from Daily News Egypt has reported that police have also already started the round up people in preparation to the Presidents arrival as a warning to other dissenters that they should rethink their plans for tomorrow.

I ask myself, what good is a speech that is intended to improve US relations with Muslims around the world, when Obama’s presence brings alienation to both Muslims and Christians in the very country that he is a guest? A speech on unity is rendered moot, when existing superiority is flaunted, whether purposefully or not. With the amount of effort of choosing a symbolic location for the speech, Obama should have looked at other latent messages in his visit. Furthermore, although many people around the world and in Egypt look forward to this speech, it does not take away from the reality that Obama will continue policies that allow autocrats like Mubarak to continue, or that military means will still be used in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and any other country that the US sees fit under the pretext of the War on Terror (even if Obama has stopped using that term). I am sure that people on the receiving end of Obama’s foreign policy will lose faith in the new face of American policy much before the American left does. My fear is that this renewed complacency by the left will not end before many more tragedies happen, which no speech will prevent against or be a sufficient apology for.