In today’s New York Times, Egyptian novelist Alaa al-Aswany poignantly describes many Egyptians’ initial fascination with President Barack Obama:
Our admiration for Mr. Obama is grounded in what he represents: fairness. He is the product of a just, democratic system that respects equal opportunity for education and work. This system allowed a black man, after centuries of racial discrimination, to become president.
This fairness is precisely what we are missing in Egypt.
Of course, this is precisely the reaction that many of Obama’s supporters had in mind – that Obama’s symbolism would provide an immediate opening for appealing to Middle Eastern publics. In turn, his proponents argued, Obama would become a uniquely compelling voice for improving relations with the Muslim world, and would further inspire those struggling for political freedom.
Well, not so fast. Even before taking office, Obama had already lost al-Aswany – and for reasons that have nothing to do with Egypt. Check out this logical non sequitur, which al-Aswany serves up with an extra helping of indignant moral fuzziness:
We welcomed him with almost total enthusiasm until he underwent his first real test: Gaza. Even before he officially took office, we expected him to take a stand against Israel’s war on Gaza. We still hope that he will condemn, if only with simple words, this massacre that killed more than 1,300 Palestinians, many of them civilians. (I don’t know what you call it in other languages, but in Egypt we call this a massacre.) … We also wanted Mr. Obama … to recognize what we see as a simple, essential truth: the right of people in an occupied territory to resist military occupation.
In this case, you can’t blame President Obama for failing to meet expectations. After all, al-Aswany apparently anticipated that Obama would not only blame Israel for its counterattack on Gaza, but would further support Hamas’s rocket attacks as “resistance.” Only a fiction writer (and Stephen Walt) could possibly see such a scenario as possible, let alone morally just.
Still, there is a greater tragedy in al-Aswany’s op-ed – namely, that the Egyptian novelist has favored the Palestinian issue over the plight of his 75 million compatriots, who are struggling under brutal authoritarianism. This is part of a broader trend: non-Islamist Egyptian dissidents, having lost faith that anything will change in Egyptian politics, have increasingly sought a voice through the Palestinian issue. Of course, the Egyptian regime welcomes this shift in advocacy: it knows that pro-Palestinian rants such as al-Aswany’s discredit its detractors to American policymakers, which is why the regime only allows dissidents to achieve prominence when they are staunchly anti-Israel.
In turn, al-Aswany has produced a mammoth failure in his New York Times debut: not only will his op-ed fail to generate U.S. support for Hamas, but it will also reinforce support for the very regime that keeps him in its crosshairs.