Letter from Cairo: Big Obama’s House


The relationship between Egypt and the United States is not very different from that between an Egyptian woman and her husband who she knows has taken another wife behind her back. She cannot confront him because if she does so the only way to save face is to ask for divorce and there are several reasons that make this an unpleasant option—the kids, financial dependence, and / or emotional attachment being the most common examples.

He knows that she knows and is fully aware why she is pretending not to. In fact, he is content with her decision to act as if nothing happened because he, too, does not want to end their relationship for maybe two of the above mentioned reasons—the first and the third to be specific—and also for not wanting to be the bastard who abandons his wife and his family for a woman he has possibly only just met.

The wife’s acquiescence encourages him to take her for granted and minimizes any feelings of guilt he might have for hurting her womanhood. While she secretly hopes he will eventually redress the wrong he has done her and realize that the other relationship is a fling or a middle age crisis or a seven-year itch or whatever makes men assume they’re still high school kids, he keeps justifying to himself that, like all men, he is born polygamous and that one woman will never be able to give him all what he needs. So far, so good… life goes on and the charade seems like an Oscar-winner par excellence, yet tension starts when the wife starts losing patience and the husband starts fearing the day she will pull off the typical “It’s either me or she” act, and when both realize that while a breakup is undesirable, a continuation of the status quo is next to impossible.

I thought I could have made the analogy much easier had I just cited the example of France’s relationship with its former colonies in Africa, but I decided against that for two reasons.

One: the situation is a bit different since the United States did not actually occupy Egypt—we’re talking physical, traditional, invasion-like occupation. Two: the relationship between Western powers and the countries they had once occupied could, I believe, be likened to that of a possessive patron and a rebellious artist. The patron wants to get the best of the artist’s talents, but always tries to convince him that it is his best interests that he has at heart.

The artist knows this is not true and is dying for the day he will not be commissioned the artwork desired by the other people and which usually serve their political ambition and further their financial gains but not fulfill any of his aesthetic aspirations. When that day comes, the patron is infuriated at the artist’s rebellion, but is smart enough not to sever all ties with him and the art he can offer. He, therefore, turns into some kind of big brother, also under the pretext of helping the artist out whenever it is too tough for him to manage on his own and when this happens—and it usually does because the patron is very aware that the artist has not yet reached the degree of independence required to totally do without any external help—the patron would jump at the chance and hurry to “rescue” the artist in whatever ordeal he is facing while deep down enjoying the satisfaction of proving how indispensible he is. Take a look at France’s intervention in the latest crisis in Cote D’Ivoire and you will fully understand what I am talking about.

Being generally an unconventional imperialist power—the conventional type being the French and British empires—the United States’ relations with countries where it exercises considerable hegemony—and these are a lot—is much more complex and hard to define. It also differs from one country to another, so the Egyptian example is not necessarily applicable to other countries whether inside or outside the region. Regardless of the strategic importance of Egypt in the Middle East, whether in terms of political influence or geographical location, the United States’ interest in Egypt has certainly taken a different turn after 1948 and has grown into an obsession after 1979 when the Arab world’s staunch enemy became Egypt’s best buddy. One American administration after the other reiterated Egypt’s importance in maintaining peace in the Middle East—read “with Israel”—yet Obama’s luck has been exceptional—good or bad remains to be known—for during his couple of years in office, he has witnessed Egypt go through the most important transformation in its contemporary history.

When President Barack Obama chose Cairo to address the Muslim world in 2009, many were surprised and many more were skeptical, not out of underestimating Egypt’s impact on regional affairs, especially as far as American interests are concerned, but because other countries might have seemed more “Islamic” for that matter. He could have gone to Saudi Arabia, home of Islam’s two holiest sites, or to Indonesia, the world’s biggest Muslim nation as well as one in which he spent several of his childhood years.

Like many of those skeptics, to whom I obviously belong, I believed that Mr. Obama’s choice of Egypt had nothing to do with Islam or Muslims and that those two words were only used to appeal to a population that is pre-dominantly religious or at least for whom religion is in some way or another part of their daily lives—add to that the fact that Mr. Obama hails from Muslim ancestry. Acknowledging the role of al-Azhar as “a beacon of Islamic learning” and hailing “civilization’s debt to Islam,” stressing that he was seeking “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims,” and quoting verses from the Quran constituted indeed a remarkable departure from George W. Bush’s “crusade” rhetoric—in itself not such a bad initiative—yet for me this did not herald the beginning of a reconciliation with the religion perceived with increasing hostility after September 11, but rather proved how gullible we were.

Sugarcoated with praise of Islam and the principles it promotes, Mr. Obama’s speech offered just a different way of emphasizing the strategic partnership between Egypt and the United States—and when I say Egypt I mean the former Egyptian regime and not the “Muslims” he kept referring to. Obama was just playing it smart by renewing vows with Hosni Mubarak’s regime while attempting to make Egyptians like America a little bit or at least hate it less. Nobody knows what Mr. Obama was thinking exactly, but sometimes I wonder if one of the motives behind the speech was preempting any possible revolt against the despotic government that America wanted so desperately to keep in power. Quite a crazy thought I know, but all is fair in love and war and politics.

The United States’ apprehension about a regime change in Egypt and the possibility of a new government that might be hostile to the West or, most importantly, to Israel was very obvious in Mr. Obama’s confused—and confusing remarks—on the popular protests that started on January 25.

One time Mr. Obama would urge Mr. Mubarak to “live up to promises he made about political, social and economic reforms,” and another time US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would demand “a peaceful and orderly transition”; and between this and that, the Egyptian people were left to guess whether the United States wanted Mr. Mubarak or wanted to see him go.

Of course we all know it was the first, yet we realized that hinting at embracing the second was important for a country that prides itself on being a beacon of democracy. It was the Egyptian people who relieved Mr. Obama of the tough decision he had to make and it was their will that prevailed, regardless of all other political interests and strategic calculations.

It was then that the second speech on Egypt—though not from it—came. Acknowledging the Egyptian people’s “hunger for change,” and admitting that the January 25 revolution is “history taking place,” Mr. Obama has again played it smart by wooing the people instead of wooing the regime—not that he had so much of a choice, though. Mr. Obama did praise the revolution not because he wanted it to happen or was happy that it happened, but simply because it did happen and when he said that Egypt “will never be the same,” he did not necessarily mean that he liked the change.

Again, I am not claiming I could read his mind, but I could see that while delivering this speech, he was still unable to come to terms with what happened and had not yet figured out what he meant by the “assistance” the United States is offering to post-revolution Egypt. He knew one thing: there is an inseparable link that needs to be maintained, a partnership that has to be remolded in light of the new conditions, and strategic interests that cannot be compromised… “How?” is presumably what he asked himself after he stepped down from the podium and was able to catch his breath.

Having had a couple of months to think, Mr. Obama came up with a third speech which was definitely more thought over than its hasty predecessor and in which, consequently, he took more liberty lashing out at the very regime of which he and his country had been staunch supporters, not missing the chance to mention that animosity toward Israel was only an outlet for the anger harbored against domestic tyrants. Knowing that while it was nice of him and all to refer to the revolution as one of the many “shouts of human dignity” sweeping the region and while it might have been touching—maybe more to Americans—to quote the Egyptian mother who said she can “breathe fresh air for the first time,” he had to wrap up the sweet talk and get down to action.

He then reached the most important bit—how will the US “help” in baking—and no doubt eating a big portion of—the cake? Asserting that his country will never be out of any equation by virtue of the power it wields was an attempt on Mr. Obama’s part to restore control in a relationship that took abrupt twists and hazardous turns. Mentioning the killing of Osama Bin Laden as the ultimate proof of America’s ability to eliminate terrorism, reiterating America’s intolerance of Iran’s nuclear program, and again making sure the word “Israel” was inserted in every other sentence, were gentle reminders of who the boss still is even though the balance of power might have been tipped—temporarily he hopes—toward the other side.

“I will go with the flow, but you are not to outsmart me,” Mr. Obama seemed to have been saying.

So after realizing that his wife will no longer tolerate being pushed to the margins, the husband comes back home laden with gifts for the first wife and learning by heart a few promises that might help to nip the nascent rebellion in the bud. However, while taking her in his arms, whispering that she is the love of his life and vowing that this other woman means nothing to him, he makes sure he reminds her how much she needs him and how at times she will have to swallow her wounded pride. The little independence she has started sporting will thus appear contingent upon how far his patience can go before it wears too thin.

At the end, it remains up to him, not to the wife’s indignant fits of anger or even threats to end the relationship, to leave the other woman or not and being sweet or apologetic does not translate into being weak or easy to control.

“I will always be your man, but you are not to twist my arm,” the husband thinks as he begs the wife not to leave him.

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Sonia Farid

I teach for a living... write for a life!

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