Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Egypt: Mohammed, KFC, and US

by Steven A. Cook
September 14, 2012

A protester shouts slogans as he waves an Egyptian flag before a line of riot police along a road leading to the U.S. embassy, near Tahrir Square in Cairo (Amr Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters). A protester shouts slogans as he waves an Egyptian flag before a line of riot police along a road leading to the U.S. embassy, near Tahrir Square in Cairo (Amr Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters).

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.

 

Post a Comment 10 Comments

  • Posted by Eugene

    This muddled commentary confuses many things while making atrocious grammatical errors and use of cliches (e.g. 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.)

    Firstly, the causes of resentment have more to do with Islamist causes than specifically Arab ones. A large cross-section of society that considers itself Arab, also considers itself Copt, secular, or left-wing. Why would such a movie offend those Arabs?

    Secondly, Egyptian nationalism was suppressed under Mubarak’s government. What is the sources of this newly found Egyptian nationalism? I would say that we can look at another strain of transnationalist movement – pan-Arabist solidarity. (Going back to my first point – I would not say that the movie specifically offended this bloc.)

    Finally, to say that the current protests are an expression of anger against US support of Sadat, among other reasons is beyond belief. In many ways, Sadat is still celebrated in Egypt for his leadership, though he did lose the war against Israel.

    I would also caution not to misuse the word altruism. While handing out $65B to Egypt may have been intended to improve their society, your assertion that the motive was ‘altruistic’ reveals an ignorance of power relations.

  • Posted by Richard Huber

    The United States’ hundreds of Embassies around the world are vast symbols of waste & useless allocation of resources.

    For starters are Ambassadors any longer relevant? Let’s remember that the role of Ambassador Plenipotentiary was born during the Middle Ages when communication between world capitals took months or in some cases even years. Therefore a ruler would designate someone to be his Ambassador to act on his behalf in dealings with another ruler in a distant court. An ambassador had real power! In today’s world with instant and constant communication Ambassadors are obsolete creatures whose sole function seems to be to attend parties throw by other similarly redundant Ambassadors of other countries.

    Meanwhile the Embassies themselves have grown into behemoths that in a number of instances house over a thousand employees, all of course on our payroll. What do these people do? A very good question. Many of them have nothing to do with the State Department but are housed in the Embassy by their US agencies. Of course everyone knows about the CIA agents, ever so fecklessly “hidden” in the Embassies. But there are also Military attaches, Agricultural attaches, Energy Department attaches, Commerce Dept. attaches and the list goes on and on. What they supposedly do is “gather information”; ‘tho I doubt that their Goggle searches are any more clever or penetrating than mine, sitting as I am in New York City. In the eighties I supervised Citibank’s vast operations in Asia and then Latin America. In that capacity I traveled extensively to virtually every county in both regions, but the thought of calling on the US Embassy just never occurred to me (nor to my colleagues).

    But wow do they cost! How much is virtually impossible to determine, since the costs are tucked away within the budget of each of the agencies & departments in which all the tag-alongs work. But it is billions.

    Speaking of costs, why not take a look at the cost of the buildings to house them? The new Embassy in London is budgeted to cost $1 billion! Of course that includes a moat (how to appear open and inviting to the local population!) and 22nd century security measures. Islamabad is only $850 million and Bagdad a little over $600 million, ‘tho with all the modifications and enhancements one suspects that it is much more than this “official” figure and close to the original estimate of $1 billion. Just imagine the impact on the US economy if these sums were to be invested in sorely needed domestic infrastructure projects. And hey, it might even put some Americans back to work!

  • Posted by Matt

    That is all very true, you cannot support dictators and the use of emergency laws on people. Then expect them to suddenly embrace you. It was like Iraq in the beginning met as liberators then occupiers. People in Egypt saw the US betrayal of Mubarak as insincere. That the US was forced to by the people in Liberation Square. I thought I had seen everything until I saw secular Egyptians throwing objects at the Secretary of States convoy.

    Now what is often called the freedom agenda, after 9/11, why do they hate us, why does al-Qaida have support and state sponsors of terror. So W pushes for democratic reforms in the Middle East and focuses on state sponsors of terror and al-Qaida.

    So US allies Royals and Dictators the US pushes for reforms, because we support those regimes and that makes the US unpopular in the Muslim world and creates a terror threat. As people have learned from COIN you cannot kill your way to victory. These regimes use emergency laws to stay in power, not democracy.

    Next al-Qaida remove the safe havens and above was to remove the support for terror against US.

    Then we come to state sponsors, that use hatred of the US as a pillar of their regimes ( Assad the Arab Spring won’t happen because of the resistance), they sponsor terror against the US, the risk of WMD’s, to protect those regimes and being used in terror. Assad if you invade I will use WMD’s, if Israel did not conduct OP Orchard it would the threat of a nuclear bomb. Regime change part of the freedom agenda.

    What are US interests in the Middle East why do we support the regimes we do, namely energy security. You have to look at the leaders of the US after Israel was formed, all from WW2. What is Israel to us, why do we store a lot of weapons there. Because Israel is a beach head, WW2 D’ Day thinking.

    Same reason the US has stockpiles in hot spots in Asia. Why in Israel because of the core interest, the reason the regimes are supported energy security. Israel is of use to the US, it is a stable, westernized, democratic, strategically placed.

    That is why you have the peace process with Israel and the Palestinians, same reason the push for democratic reforms in the countries the US supports and why the US is disliked. Why that creates terror threats to the US.

    So it is all about removal of a key threats terrorism and still securing US interests mainly energy. The other key point is if the regimes do not reform, then it is forced on them by the people. The US wants gradual reforms so it can secure its interests.

    So the reforms were key to securing US interests long term. Just like the Israeli and Palestinian peace process is.

    In 50 years the Monarchies of the Middle East will look like the Monarchies of the UK and EU, with constitutional conventions, between the Monarchy and the democratic elected parliaments. If not they will simple no longer exist, like the dictatorships.

    Sure it was food prices that spurred on the Arab Spring but the discontent was under the surface and boiling, it is either gradual reforms or forced by the people chaotically. George Bush had told them that, they know it, it is the it will never happen to me sort of thing.

    Even Malaysia was forced to change their emergency laws due to the Arab Spring, albeit only slightly and renamed. It was a concession.

  • Posted by Rebecca E Moulds

    As an American who lived in Egypt for ten years, I can attest to the growing mistrust of foreigners on Egyptian soil. We moved to Cairo in 1996 and I was amazed that at that time, there were 24 Pizza Huts in Egypt, a few McDonald’s fast food restaurants, Arby’s Roast Beef, and various other American restaurants. There were also Domino’s Pizza, Einstein Bagels, Quizno’s, Cinnabon. Even in the new terminal at the Cairo Airport, there is a Starbucks Coffee. However, this does not mean that Egyptians love Americans. When the US strike against Iraq was imminent in 2003, the Egyptians, although no lovers of Saddam Hussein, were grumbling about this latest US-attack in a Middle Eastern country. Although I did enjoy my years in Cairo, there was this feeling of unreality hanging over the expatriate community, as if any day the sky was going to fall. Sadly, I think the sky has fallen. The film that has provoked these attacks across the Middle East has now become secondary to the real issue, which may be that that the Middle East wants the US out of its territory.

  • Posted by Matt

    I will also add they we sort to make the sort of democratic systems, we installed in Germany and Japan after WW2, pacified.

    It makes them less of a threat, than a two party system, where a majority can rule, strongly. How many PM’s has Japan had in the last few year, Merkel every week there could be an election. Due to the sectarian nature of Middle East countries it is a perfect model and decisions to go to war etc the ruling party coalition falls a part. Perfect for a hostile region, pacified.

  • Posted by Objective Analyst

    “Washington has helped Egypt through infrastructure development, agricultural reform, public health, and myriad other areas … Washington has sought to help Egypt to the tune of $65 billion.” Huh?!!! Which country can match what the US has done to Egypt?

    “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.”
    What Irony? What is wrong with having American enterprises in Egypt? It creates jobs and helps to promote tourism—a backbone of Egyptian economy. What is wrong with this? What is this non-sense?
    And, is America supposed to give tens of billions of dollars, expertise, its time and efforts without anything in return so that the “proud Egyptian” remains satisfied? So, is America the Santa clause that I thought was inexistent?
    Why do Americans keep flogging themselves? Why cannot they see that these people—those who engage in blind anti-Americanism—are ungrateful and hateful lot, driven by deep seated cultural and religious hatred? This statement is politically in correct but, it is the truth.

  • Posted by Objective Analyst

    People keep repeating this, please oh please, can somebody tell me where did this come from? Where did this emanate from? When were Americans friends with Qaddafi, Al-Assad, and Saddam? And, how would the writer and all the “intellectuals” who keep repeating this line—like parrots—explain anti-Americanism in these countries.
    The statement that Americans are hated because they “supported dictators” is wrong. However, analysts and intellectuals keep asserting that this is a reason for anti-Americanism in the ME. Mirror imaging, lack of cultural understanding, layered analysis, and self-referencing analysis is the cause of this common mistake.

  • Posted by Matt

    That may occur in Egypt in the future, but remember Hitler came to power democratically. Once in power it is easy to repress other political factions and maintain absolute power. That was the mistake made in Egypt. Mubarak made one mistake he said September and not ‘a period of calm’, but he had agree to step down, once people had left the square and hand over to the VP. Basically the Yemen model the US later used, was proposed to the US in relation to Egypt and Mubarak. And they said no.

    The issue of ‘period of calm’ and September comment could have been clarified. You have to remember the US wanted him to stand down right away, and they were not open to what became known as the Yemen model. So you had to go through second and third parties in relation getting messages to Egypt. Because you are not acting on behalf of the government, in fact, you are acting against their wishes. The next time he spoke would have been ‘period of calm’.

    In the end it was an issue of dignity and securing peace for 30 years between Israel and the Egypt. Yes he was a dictator, but by keeping peace how many lives did he save on both sides over the decades. He deserved to stand down with dignity, during a period of calm. Instead they put him in a cage.

    That was not diplomacy how the US handled Mubarak, they had him removed and it was not their threats and bullying that he had him agreeing to step down.

    The Saudi money secured offered dollar for dollar if the US pulled funding to the military was not in relation to Mubarak remaining in power but standing down in ‘a period of calm’.

    If people had left the square the next day he would have resigned. And we just had to wait them out.

    Before Mubarak was removed on Feb 11 we knew that around 70 percent of votes would go to the Islamists and they could stifle any future political parties, if they choose too. The extra time would have allowed for a multiparty system and coalition to be formed when democratic elections occurred.

    That is what I mean about command and control bypass the chain of command straight to the VP and to the President. And that is what would happened in relation to Egypt. Simple.

  • Posted by matt

    Was this also true during the Danish cartoon riots? Do the Arabs have pent up grievances against Denmark? Politics is part of it, but religious extremism is the gasoline on the fire.

  • Posted by John

    Bla, bla, bla. A civilized country that is unhappy with us has an obvious course to take– kick out the ambassador, shut down the embassy, refuse the money. But no, they want to take the money AND assault the embassy. Perhaps we should institute a policy of attacking the embassy of any country that attacks our embassies. Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? That’s because we’re a civilized country.
    The riff on our “supporting” Middle East dictators is annoying, too. For the most part, we take governments as we find them. If they are too objectionable, we do not maintain diplomatic relations with them. Yes, occasionally we intervene militarily, but that doesn’t always work out so well (see Iraq). Should we have invaded Egypt to overthrow Mubarak? Somehow, I don’t think than would have earned us the undying love of the Islamic Brotherhood types.
    It’s a simple concept– if you wish to be regarded as a civilized country, you don’t attack embassies. If your people are attacking another country’s embassy, you stop them using law enforcement or military. Otherwise, you are putting your country/ government in the same category as the Iranian nuts. If your medieval traditions/ religion are not ready for interaction with the modern world, then perhaps you should refrain from interacting with it.

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