I have been traveling most of this week, watching events in the Middle East unfold from the American heartland. The reaction among many of the people there was a mix of shock, anxiety, and fear. They also wanted to know why people are storming U.S. diplomatic compounds. Americans are in disbelief that this is happening over a movie that no one has ever heard of, much less seen. In that they are correct. Events in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, and now Malaysia are far more complicated than an offensive movie and the madness of those who sought to provoke this violence by making it as well as those who have capitalized on it to encourage violence.
Consider Egypt, the place in the Muslim world that I know best. Many Egyptians—including, I am sure, President Mohammed Morsi—are deeply offended by The Innocence of Muslims but the resentment of the United States runs deep in Egypt. This is not an excuse, but Americans must understand the context in which their embassies and diplomats are being attacked. Yes, Washington has helped Egypt through infrastructure development, agricultural reform, public health, and myriad other areas; but the United States has, according to Egyptians, weakened their country through an alliance that subordinates Cairo’s interests to those of Washington (and by association those of Jerusalem). This sense of subordination is manifest in the U.S. embassy itself. To the average American it may seem innocuous enough, though it sits in a miniature “Green Zone”—which is actually at the insistence of the Egyptian government—a few blocks from Tahrir Square. That is Liberation Square. The embassy is easily spotted by just looking up from Tahrir because, at thirteen stories, it is one of the tallest buildings in the area. It looms over a traffic circle that features newsstands, travel agencies, formerly the Cairo Hilton, the Egyptian national museum, and the dregs of American fast food outlets—KFC, Hardee’s, and Pizza Hut. It would be hard for a proud Egyptian nationalist not to notice the irony of it all.
No, the protests are not just about a movie. They are about perceived insults on Egyptians’ national pride and collective dignity that the United States has perpetrated for the previous three decades. It ranges from everything such as support for President Mubarak and Anwar Sadat before him, to U.S. patronage of Israel at the expense of Egypt and Arab causes, to the invasion of Iraq, which the vast majority of Egyptians deeply opposed, though Mubarak provided important assistance in that effort, to little slights like Ambassador Ann Patterson’s visit to a polling station during parliamentary elections last fall/winter. The cognitive dissonance is hard to get over for Americans, however. Washington has sought to help Egypt to the tune of $65 billion. For Egyptians the mistrust runs so deep, there is no such thing as American altruism. Under these circumstances, President Obama was exactly right when he questioned the quality of the U.S.-Egypt alliance.