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Saturday, 8 June, 2002, 10:40 GMT 11:40 UK
Arabs' love-hate relationship with US
Anti-US demonstration
Anti-US feelings sometimes run high in Egypt

Down a twisting backstreet in the medieval quarter of Cairo, we found Umm Nabil. An Egyptian lady in her late middle age, she sat upon a stool and smiled at those around her.

She had every reason to be happy. Her workshop, a family business passed on from her husband, was flourishing.

America has already penetrated deep beneath the skin of the Arab world in more ways than one

Her sons hammered and chipped at strips of metal, beating them into ashtrays and hubble-bubble water pipes.

What she didn't know, until I told her, was that the local government grant for her business came from the United States. She was a living beneficiary of the very country so many Egyptians profess to hate, and I think she was quietly horrified.

In Egypt it works like this. Each year, the US government gives Egypt a grant of around $2bn. Two thirds of it is in military aid, making Egypt one of the most powerful military forces in the Middle East.

But more than $0.5bn a year is in economic aid. Through an organisation called USAid, Washington has been quietly helping to shore up the tottering Egyptian economy.

It funds schools, businesses and a wide range of projects intended to help Egyptians lever themselves up out of their grinding poverty. The US rationale is that a stable, peaceful Egypt can be a force for good in the region.

So Washington is effectively investing in stability.

Subtle influence

Perhaps naively, many Egyptians say they'd rather do without the money. They say they want nothing to do with a country they see as the unflinching backer of Israel.

But America has already penetrated deep beneath the skin of the Arab world in more ways than one. Walk down a street in Jeddah, Beirut or Alexandria and you'll see an array of fast food outlets.

The golden arches are gaining ground in Egypt

Beside the minarets of Riyadh shines the neon glow of Burger King.

These days Kuwaiti students would rather sip cappuccinos in Starbucks than taste the bitter tang of traditional cardamom coffee in a cafe.

Switch on Saudi TV and you get Beverley Hills 90210, rent a video in Cairo and you're offered Rocky IV and Pearl Harbour.

I can think of no more graphic an illustration of this double tug on the hearts and minds of Arabs than the demonstration I went to in Tripoli last year.

The authorities had bused in thousands of young Libyans to the centre of town and handed out anti-western placards.

The organised protest snaked around the ornate boulevards of Gaddafi's capital, railing against the 'injustice' of the Lockerbie verdict. 'Down with America', 'Down with Imperialism' read the banners.

As the procession went past, two Libyan demonstrators asked a colleague of mine, an American, where she was from. When she told them New York, they give her a huge thumbs-up, adding that it was their dream to go and study in America.

The truth is that many young Arabs have a curious love-hate relationship with America. They love its products, hate its policies. They watch its films, eat its food, wear its baseball caps, even go to its universities.


But mention US policy in the Middle East and their faces will darken. America, they'll tell you, is biased against Muslims, against Palestinians, against Iraqis, against all Arabs.

President Mubarak
Egypt's President Mubarak walks a fine line
This is why the governments of moderate Arab states like Egypt and Jordan find themselves in such an awkward position, each time the tension rises in the Middle East.

Their economies need US aid and the rulers feel strengthened by their strategic alliance with the world's only superpower.

But when Palestinians are getting killed, Arabs in the street want their rulers to cut all ties with Israel and possibly even with Washington. And so it was that we found ourselves recently in the middle of a demonstration outside Cairo University.

A man with a megaphone went round in circles, carried high on someone's shoulders. He cursed Israel, he cursed America, he cursed Britain. His saliva flew in streams over the heads of his fellow students.

But never, I noted, did he curse his own government.

Ranged against the demonstrators were several lines of riot police. Armed with bamboo canes, tear gas and pump-action shotguns, their job was to prevent the demo breaking out onto the main streets of Cairo.

This time the protesters backed down. They were outnumbered and surrounded. Like every other Arab street protest that's flared up since the start of the Palestinian intifada, it looks menacing at close quarters.

But eventually, everyone gets tired and goes home.

Real test to come

Yet Egyptians tell me that the real test for their government has yet to come.

If the violence in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict were to reach a new height and Arabs were to die in their hundreds, then the pressure would be on.

Moderate Arab rulers like President Mubarak, King Abdullah and perhaps the Gulf monarchs too, may have to choose between staying friends with America, and their own survival.

Few of today's rulers have forgotten the fate that befell the Shah of Iran.

See also:

26 Nov 01 | Middle East
10 Nov 01 | Middle East
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