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American election, Egyptian perspectives

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Where the world sees two radically opposed candidates, the Egyptian street sees two sides of the same coin.

Karim Malak
25 October 2012

It would seem that the issue Egyptians care about most in the presidential race is American aid for democratic transition in Egypt - at least, if you were to listen to what our pundits talk about endlessly, as negotiations over the future of US aid have recently been stalled by the anti-American riots.

But I’m not so sure the Arab street would agree. There is still disillusion and resentment over the Egyptian military’s economic wealth, part of which comes from US aid, which has shown no sign so far of trickling down to the masses. At last week's Euromoney conference, I was deeply surprised to see Walter North, mission director of USAID Egypt, talk about 'new programs' as if grants were still coming in. Perhaps he knows that the money is coming in anyway and that any temporary delay is due to the election season. This is probably the bottom line of how Egyptians see the US elections: a sense of resignation about a lack of significant change and no particular expectations whatever the outcome of the vote will be.

Even if both candidates claim to be very different from each other, they appear to have a lot in common. US national interests are too important in the region and it seems that both Romney and Obama are constrained by other institutions in the US, such as the Department of Defense. Take Romney’s statement that he would give Egypt more aid: this is an attempt at outmaneuvering Obama and a major flip-flop on his part. But even after the raids on American NGOs in Egypt, targeting organizations such as the International Republican Institute (IRI), aid to Egypt did not stop. On the contrary, if my memory serves me correctly Obama issued an executive order to guarantee future aid. In the US, election season has everyone scrambling to highlight the differences between the candidates - in the Middle East, both are seen as the two sides of a same coin. Beyond each candidate's rhetoric, the US election’s actual impact will be close to nothing; if Romney wins maybe will he make a new address to the Arab world, similar to Obama's Cairo speech, and if Obama wins maybe he will give us part two of that same speech. The USA continues to be viewed negatively in this region because of controversial matters such as the use of drones in Yemen and support for the Bahraini regime – issues on which Romney's and Obama's respective positions are hardly different. Obama’s initial pledge to close down Guantanamo has never been put into practice, and it is extremely unlikely that Romney would do it.

TV comedian Jon Stewart, despite being heralded as one of the most preeminent critics of the current state of American politics, recently invited King Abdullah II of Jordan to appear on The Daily Show, adjusting his show for a Middle East audience. The deferential setup and actual content of the interview attest to how little can possibly change in US policy towards the Middle East. For example, when Abdullah wrongly claimed that Jordan was going through an ‘Arab Spring’ of its own, he was not contradicted by Stewart . If even the otherwise most vocal critics don’t cross certain red lines, imagine the policymakers!

The US presidential race may be a special context that electrifies everything, and Arabs eager to debate the 'new politics' of the Middle East may get more air time, but the Arab street continues to be skeptical of all that talk. The Arab street has an appetite for change –  but one that is still unsatisfied despite the Arab uprisings, and this is even more true of US policy in the region. The presidential race in the US will be looked at both skeptically and bleakly. The issue of Iran, likely to resonate in the Middle East, will continue to dominate the superficial debate as both candidates seek to split hairs over the issue.

Arabs know that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is definitely off the table and that any candidate alluding to it cannot be taken seriously – because such decisions are not made unilaterally by the President of the United States of America.

This article is part of the 'How it looks from here' openDemocracy feature on the 2012 US elections. For more worldwide perspectives on the presidential race, click here.

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