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Friday, 7 February, 2003, 14:54 GMT
Eyewitness: America's tainted image
Palestinian burns US flag
The US is perceived as being biased towards Israel

As the United States prepares to go to war with Iraq, Washington is also mounting a parallel offensive - to improve its public image abroad, most especially in the Arab world.

It is Friday lunchtime at al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo and once the prayers are over some of the worshippers gather in the courtyard to give vent to their feelings.

Chanting repetitive slogans, much of their anger is directed at the United States and President George W Bush.

Palestine has tainted our vision and has tainted the world for us for the last 40 years

Professor Saad Eddin Ibrahim, American University in Cairo
It is here in Egypt that anti-American sentiment in the Arab world is at its highest according to a recent survey published in the US.

This is ironic since Egypt receives more American aid money than any other country in the world, second only to Israel.

The man leading the demonstration, Azem al-Maraha, says it is money Egypt does not need.

"The first step of the people of Egypt is to declare that we refuse this assistance from America, we refuse this financial support.

"This is a price for our silence against what's going on and we will never accept to eat from the blood of our brothers in Iraq," he said.

Palestinian prism

The threat of war with Iraq is the most current source of Arab anger with the United States but it is the intractable conflict between Israel and the Palestinians that lies at the root of the problem according to Professor Saad Eddin Ibrahim at the American University in Cairo.

Israeli soldier and Palestinian woman
Many Arabs feel the world has neglected the Palestinians

"The Palestinian question in the mind of Egyptians and other Arabs is very much like the Jewish question in the mind of the Europeans.

"If you are European you feel a moral responsibility towards the plight of the Jews during the Holocaust.

"Our holocaust for the Palestinians was 1948 and the two or three decades that followed and that weighs very heavily on the minds of every Arab," he said.

Professor Ibrahim says that for Arabs every relationship with the outside world must be seen through the Palestinian prism.

"Palestine has tainted our vision and has tainted the world for us for the last 40 years.

"Our feelings towards any outside power must go through the Palestine test. And America in the last three or four years has failed that test miserably."

'Misconceptions'

Since 11 September, 2001, American representatives abroad - especially those in the Arab world - have been told by their superiors in Washington to make greater efforts to win hearts and minds.

The US ambassador to Cairo, David Welch, says he is keen to get out more to meet the people but he tells me he knows he is going to be defending an unpopular policy.

Sometimes it is worrisome that public attitudes are that way

David Welch, US ambassador to Egypt

"We're not providing American tax payers dollars in order to buy a popular poll result.

"What we're doing is trying to improve the lives of people and in so doing to help the security and stability of this area and I think we have made dramatic progress in that regard" he explained.

I asked him whether, as a representative of US Government, it worried him that the majority of the people in Egypt disapproved of his foreign policy in the Middle East.

"Yes, sometimes it is worrisome that public attitudes are that way.

"It is particularly worrisome if it's due not to a difference about what ought to be done in a particular area, say regarding peace between Israel and the Palestinians, but if it's due to ignorance or mischaracterisation about American policy," the ambassador said.

"And all too frequently that's the case," he said.

But many people in the Arab world would argue with this.

They are convinced that the US is biased in the way it deals with the Arab-Israeli conflict.

And it is hard to see how a war in Iraq is going to improve perceptions.


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05 Feb 03 | Middle East
30 Jul 02 | Americas
06 Feb 03 | Middle East
19 Sep 01 | Middle East
05 Sep 02 | Americas
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