President Obama assumed office expecting that the force of his oratory and his compelling personal story would transform perceptions of the United States in the Arab and broader Muslim world. But a stunning International Peace Institute poll on public opinion in Egypt shows how misguided that expectation was (h/t Turtle Bay).
President Obama perceived America’s image as damaged by the policies and rhetoric of the Bush administration. Many expected his conciliatory words and gestures to lead to a new era of U.S.-Muslim relations. In 2009, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called Obama “a perfect messenger” to reach out to the Muslim world, confident in her knowledge that Obama would undoubtedly have a profound effect on a deeply anti-American region:
I do think that with the election of President Obama, there are many changes that are out there and a different image of the United States. According to a lot of polling data—it has been interesting. I’ve been working with the Pew Charitable Trust on their polling data, and over the years, we have tracked increasing hostility of the Muslims towards the United States. And yet, what we’ve also tracked is a great desire for change that President Obama’s bringing in, an expectation about him. So, I think the fact that he could in his inaugural address immediately call for a different relationship with the Muslim world—and by the word—even mentioning the word Muslim in an inaugural address was a big deal. I think it is important to show that the Obama administration is going to take a different view.
There was great confidence for a time. In May 2009, 51 percent of Arabs polled by Shibley Telhami expressed optimism about American policy in the Middle East.
And Obama himself tried very hard to change perceptions toward America, most notably in his 2009 Cairo speech. He opened by praising the contributions of Islam to civilization:
I am honored to be in the timeless city of Cairo, and to be hosted by two remarkable institutions … Together, you represent the harmony between tradition and progress. I am grateful for your hospitality, and the hospitality of the people of Egypt. I am also proud to carry with me the goodwill of the American people, and a greeting of peace from Muslim communities in my country: assalaamu alaykum.
His speech struck many Americans as transparent, almost insulting, pandering. AEI’s Danielle Pletka chided the president for “using the mindset of the region’s leaders, acknowledging the rhetoric of our adversaries—all the while failing to acknowledge either America’s symbolic importance or to advance our vital national interests.” But Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world did have the desired effect for a brief period. “It was significant to use ‘peace upon Mohammad’, ‘salaam aleikum’, a lot of parts from [the] Quran,” said Nana Maharah, an Egyptian student. “It means for us that it’s a new approach and he specially understands where are we coming from.”
The good feelings did not last. A year later, 51 percent of Arabs in the same poll said they held “unfavorable” views of Obama and were pessimistic about his foreign policy. Only 5 percent had “very favorable” views of the American people, and 23 percent had a “somewhat favorable” opinion. Over a quarter of those polled held a “very unfavorable” view, more than a year into the Obama administration.
In the new IPI poll, Bin Laden’s favorable rating is a healthy 21 percent. And Obama’s, after all the expectations of a new chapter in US-Muslim/Arab relations? A mere 12%.
Why is Obama so unpopular in the Arab and larger Muslim world in general, and is he unpopular in Egypt? Part of it is likely the result of an unrealistic expectation that Obama would somehow turn on Israel or at least apply unprecedented pressure to give up land to the Palestinians. But why do Egyptians specifically disapprove?
Obama’s decision to cut funding for democracy and civil society programming in Egypt angered many liberal Egyptians. In his first year in office, Obama slashed funding by 60 percent. His administration also bowed to pressure from Mubarak to fund only NGOs registered with the government, excluding the majority of Egyptian human rights groups. “There was the perception that he did the opposite of what he said he would do” said Bruce K. Rutherford, author of Egypt After Mubarak: Liberalism, Islam and Democracy, “and there is anger and disillusionment at the U.S. and Obama in general among almost everyone I talk to in Egypt.”
More recently, Obama’s failure to support the Tahrir Square protests at the outset, and his administration’s announcements that Mubarak must stay in office, shocked and confused many Egyptians. Signs appeared reading “Shame on you, Obama!” and “No You Can’t” with Mubarak depicted as Obama.
Unfortunately for Obama, lofty oratory crashes back to the hard ground of reality when it is not supported by action. The president who expected to change the perceptions of Americans in the Middle East, and gained some traction initially, has failed roundly in his efforts.
The implications of 1 in 5 Egyptians viewing bin Laden favorably also need to be addressed. The events in Tahrir Square excited the world, and talk began of a real democracy emerging in Egypt. The rose-tinted glasses need to come off. Egyptian society is hampered by serious problems, including sectarian religious violence, vibrant anti-Semitism, radicalism, and anti-Westernism, to name a few. Scenes like Sheik Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, who had praised Hitler’s murder of Jews, speaking to cheering masses in Tahrir Square should give us pause. As should the rise in lethal attacks on Coptic Christians since Mubarak’s ouster. And the Egyptian military’s use of “virginity tests” to intimidate female protesters. And the popularity of Mein Kampf and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
There are real democrats and liberals in Egypt, but they were bypassed by the Obama administration. Having lost them early on, Obama left the Tahrir Square protesters disillusioned by his initial support for Mubarak. The religious extremists will never look favorably on the United States. Little more than half way through his first term, President Obama’s efforts at changing America’s image in Egypt, and across the region, have failed miserably.