Egyptians and the American Presidents

Cairo, Egypt

I never bring up politics in the Middle East, because politics are taken so personally here, but it comes up all the time anyway. I blame Bush … and praise Obama. That’s what I heard all week in Jordan.
Obama? Thumbs up!
Bush? We’re glad he’s gone!

Among others, I had a fabulous long conversation with a tour guide on the train to Luxor about American politics abroad, especially vis-a-vis Israel/Palestine. Why does America unconditionally support Israel? she wanted to know, and she displayed a deep understanding of American politics and political philosophy. American democracy, she said, is supposed to be about protecting the rights of minorities, about defending those who don’t have the means to defend themselves against the tyranny of the majority (or the tyranny of the rich minority). Why, then, doesn’t America step in and help protect Palestinians against the abuses of the Israelis? Yes, as the world’s leading democracy, America has an imperative to protect and defend other democracies, but is Israel really a democracy? And what about Palestinians’ attempts to establish democractic rule that are so roundly and routinely crushed by Israel and her allies? Besides, if America so loudly declares that Jordan and Egypt are so-called democratic states, then shouldn’t America be supportive of their attempts to help their Palestinian brothers achieve freedom and democracy and self-determination?

Herself an Egyptian Christian, she also talked at length about how much she would like to go to the holy sites in Jerusalem, to see the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and walk the Stations of the Cross. As an Arab, however, she can’t. Few Americans realize, as they talk about the Jewish state and Islamic parties, how many Arab Christians are caught in the middle. As Palestinian Christians like to say, they were the first Christians, and there are still many of them trapped in the West Bank and Gaza. Still others, like this Egyptian woman, can’t travel to see the sites in Israel/Palestine that are holy to them, because they are concerned that their Arab neighbors will accuse them of supporting Israeli occupation with their tourist shekels. I wonder if the Christian Right takes this into account when they declare that it is their moral obligation as Christians to support the establishment of a Jewish State in Israel and drive the Palestinians out of the Holy Land.

She, like me, was heartened by President Barack Obama’s first press interview as president, on no less than the Qatari satellite TV station Al-Arabiya, vowing to listen to Muslim and Arab as well as Israeli concerns. At the same time, I fear that Arabs may be pinning too much hope on Pres. Obama. Yes, he is the head of one of the most powerful nations in the world, the so-called “Leader of the Free World,” but he’s just a man. Just one man with a dedicated Republican opposition and serious domestic concerns that also compete for his attention. He’s done a great deal of good on domestic issues in his first 100 days, but already Americans are pillorying the man for not doing enough. What happens when we get to his first State of the Union address, the end of his first year in office, and he hasn’t yet solved the economic mess or brought peace to the Middle East? Idealism is all well and good, but as Pres. Obama himself is quickly learning in his new job, one’s idealism must be tempered by realism.

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