“I don’t tell people I am American any more. The moment you do an aura of suspicion creeps in, the human warmth in the conversation evaporates”, he says.
Peter (not his real name) has lived and worked in Egypt for six years.
And Peter is not alone.
Sara Pulliam is a graduate student at the American University in Cairo. She has been here for 2 years, but recently she, too, began telling people that she was Canadian.
She says things began to change with a campaign alleging “foreign fingers destabilize Egypt”. With the arrest of an American-Israeli citizen in June accused of spying – charges vehemently denied by him and both countries (he was released at the end of October) – the mood has soured.
Change or more of the same?
Egypt is changing as I write. The country is abuzz with politics in ways unseen for over half a century. Society is opening up. Strikes and demonstrations are a daily occurrence. New political parties are emerging every day. The edifice of the one-party state built by Colonel Nasser back in the fifties is slowly crumbling.
But all is not quite as it seems.
President Hosni Mubarak is gone, but the old regime has not.
When the young protesters in Tahrir Square accused the ruling generals of being part of the old guard and demanded a quick transition to civilian rule, the military hit back. The generals deployed an old weapon: they accused the protesters of being agents of foreign plots to destabilize Egypt.
The military were helped in their smear campaign, inadvertently, by a recent revelation that Washington had given 40 million dollars to pro-democracy groups in Egypt since January.
It is illegal in Egypt to receive foreign funding without permission, so the government opened an investigation. The law is ostensibly designed to make Non Government Organizations (NGOs) transparent, but in reality it operates as a way of stifling dissent by blocking outside assistance, without which such groups could hardly survive.
Shortly after that, a government weekly, October, went on the offensive. Deploying classic conspiracy theory language, the op-ed described the U.S. top diplomat here, Anne Patterson, as an “ambassador from hell” and denounced those who received the “dirty American money” as traitors.
“No one is going to vote for them (the pro-democracy activists) in the parliamentary elections” (due 28 November), says the owner of a seafood joint in the tony district of Zamalek. “People think they are in the pay of foreign governments”, he adds.
In fact, the most likely winners of the vote are going to be people who are not exactly America’s friends, the Islamists. This puts the U.S. yet again face to face with a familiar dilemma. Washington’s support for democracy in the Arab World may bring to power people the U.S. does not like.
Recent contacts in Cairo between senior State Department officials and the Muslim Brotherhood reported today by the New York Times suggest that Washington is looking for ways out of this old conundrum. But finding common ground with the Islamists may prove very difficult, not least because of their opposition to Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.
As for the people who do have common ground with Americans, they are the ones tarred with the brush of “traitor.”
An old habit
For decades the public here have been fed a regular diet of conspiracy theories and foreign plots, with America as the lead villain.
Anti-Americanism in Egypt is a complex phenomenon. Part of it is a genuine expression of public anger, mainly at America’s support for Israel. Other parts are nurtured by different politicians for different reasons.
Back in the Cold War, when Egypt was aligned with the Soviet bloc, denouncing “American imperialism” was state doctrine. Ironically, anti- American feeling grew in popularity during the years of Anwar Sadat, the most pro-American of Egypt’s presidents.
Sadat kicked the Soviets out and realigned Egypt with the West.
But he also did something else which contributed to the enduring virulence of anti-Americanism: he unleashed Islamist forces to undermine his predecessor’s leftist supporters. It was those forces that later turned their guns on Sadat himself, assassinating him in 1981, and later on the West.
Today, Islamists are some of the main beneficiaries of the revolution.
Protest camps outside the American embassy in Cairo
Supporters of the “blind sheik” Omar Abdulrahman (who is serving a life sentence in a North Carolina jail on charges related to the 1993 World Trade Center bombings) have been camping outside the American embassy for weeks.
This is a scene that would have been unthinkable before the revolution.
The protesters want Egypt’s military rulers to secure his release. Their banners accuse America of killing and oppressing innocent Muslims.
The American embassy in Cairo is one of the most guarded sites in Egypt. All the roads leading to it have massive steel bollards manned, not by the police, by the army, a reflection of who’s in charge here.
Some have wondered why the military has allowed such a camp to continue for so long, when they have not hesitate to hit hard at pro-democracy activists.
Nearby, the walls in central Cairo bear testimony to the generals’ rule. Graffiti calling for an end to military trials and freedom for democracy activists is everywhere.
One of them depicts Maikel Nabil, a young blogger who was jailed in March for three years by a military judge for “insulting the army” in his blog.
Next to Maikel’s image on the wall someone has scrawled: “Maikel Nabil is an agent of America and Israel”.