When I started this blog last October, one of the issues I was interested in exploring was the complex relationship between the United States and the Middle East. Hence the name, “From the Potomac to the Euphrates.” The ironies, contradictions, and hypocrisies that run throughout the ties are a fascination. Perhaps it is naïveté, but I am convinced that U.S. policymakers approach the Middle East with good intentions and that the vast majority of Arabs deeply admire the United States, the principles upon which it was built, and its awesome technology. The fact that mistrust so often characterizes the relationship between Washington and the Arab world is a function of the fact that despite the well-developed military, diplomatic, and economic ties that bind us together, we actually have very little understanding of how each other’s society works.
Yesterday afternoon I became aware that a Beverly Hills-based public relations firm is representing Egypt’s April 6th Movement. In a small way, the movement’s ties to Levine Communications Office (LCO) reveals many of the incongruities and paradoxes that make Washington’s relations with the Arab world so fraught. To be fair, on a practical level, it makes a lot of sense: The firm is working for April 6th on a pro bono basis, it is sure to have a better list of press contacts than any Egyptian firm, the U.S. media market is the biggest in the world, and speaking to American reporters provides the movement a good way to try to influence the Obama administration.
On another level, the April 6th Movement’s relationship with LCO is curious given the group’s history and role in the Egyptian uprising. April 6th was founded in solidarity with Egyptian workers who had been engaged in wildcat strikes and job actions against the neo-liberal economic policies (hatched in Washington) that the Egyptian government was pursuing. A primary goal of the movement’s leadership was to convince workers that their economic problems were inextricably linked to the authoritarian nature of the Mubarak regime. Moroever, my understanding is that the underlying causes of the uprising—which would not have happened if not for the efforts of the April 6th Movement according to the message journalists received from LCO—were national dignity, authenticity, and empowerment. A primary component of the anger directed at Hosni Mubarak was his close alignment with the United States, which many Egyptians believed warped Egyptian foreign policy and compromised Cairo’s regional influence.
Perhaps April 6th’s business relationship with a U.S. public relations firm reflects in microcosm those issues that have long brought Egyptians and Americans together. Egyptians admire what Americans have accomplished and Americans want to help Egyptians achieve their goals. That is what the account executive at LCO who is responsible for April 6th told me in an email. I have no reason to question her good intentions. Still, I wonder about April 6th. Perhaps they don’t understand how their engagement of an American public relations firm might look to their fellow Egyptians, though that seems hard to believe. When I tweeted yesterday posing the question of why April 6th has Beverly Hills-based representation, one person responded, “So they can be closer to their masters.” Other tweeps were stunned. An Egyptian friend relayed suspicions that the April 6th leadership was not an authentic voice for change, hiding behind the average folks of Boulaq and Shubra who took on the police and central security forces during those 18 days in January and February and then taking credit for the uprising. Perhaps that is why they need a PR firm.
Regardless of the explanation, years ago an old Egyptian yoda said to me, “Remember, nothing in Egypt is as it seems to be.” At the time, I dismissed this as a banality to fill the pause in an otherwise interesting conversation. Somehow now, it seems particularly insightful.