Now, four weeks into my Cairo adventure, and with the help of my political blogs (which today told me that Obama attended a neighborhood barbeque near his house in Chicago over the weekend!), I've been able to begin to look at how Egyptians are viewing this historic election.
It all started about a week into my trip. I needed a trim and, lacking a favorite barber, found a little spot nestled in a back street in my neighborhood. About ten minutes after my barber offered me a joint of hash, which, through muffled laughter (and shock), I declined, he switched Looney Tunes on the TV and began riffing about the election. Despite my concerns that I had a stoner cutting my hair, I listened. "Obama is a very good man. A Muslim. Did you know?" My first instinct was to set the record straight, but I figured there'd be time for that, so I kept my mouth shut and listened. Switching to broken English, my scissor-wielding friend went on to tell me how having a Muslim president would be good for my country, which had so royally screwed up in his region over the past years. As he went on, essentially repeating his main thesis, I got began to grow excited about looking into how Egyptians viewed the Obama/McCain matchup. Here, issues of home foreclosures and tax cuts seem a distant reality and Middle East policy is king.
I left my barber a little while later, having barely dodged a run-in with two handfuls of hair-gel, unable to persuade him that Obama was, in fact, a Bible-carrying Christian. From that moment, I began asking around about the election, mostly among the ranks of the lower and lower-middle classes – taxi drivers, waiters, doormen, etc. — and the reactions have been surprisingly diverse. In fact, very few of the people I ask hold many illusions about Obama's religion. First and foremost, the prevailing attitude here is that people are ready to move past Bush. It's an attitude not dissimilar to the one in the US at the end of any eight-year president. Even with high approval ratings, people were ready to move on from Clinton in 2000, and I bet the same held true with Reagan in 1988. I've also been surprised by how many people simply haven't heard of Obama; I get a number of blank stares when I mention his name. Many, though, who know Obama and know his true religious affiliation, approach the election with a healthy dose of enthusiasm. There's something intangible, non policy-driven, that excites them about him. It bears mentioning that I don't have much to say about McCain since he rarely registers on the radar of your standard-issue cab driver.
While I can draw no over-arching conclusions from this initial assessment of how Egypt's poor view the presidential election, since opinions and levels of understanding are so varied, this mini sociological experiment has reinforced my belief in the importance of soft power as a critical tool in America's arsenal. Put, for a moment, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the rest of the extremist groups aside. While they have come to represent the face of the Middle East to the West, the real face of this region is the tens of millions of under-payed, under-represented Egyptians, Syrians, Jordanians, etc. They grow the food, build the houses, etc. They are critical in setting a tone for the region. And it was through these conversations I had with people on the street that I began to realize how open they are to moving back into the American camp. There is this deep, and somewhat amusing, affection among many in the region for Jimmy Carter. No kidding. He comes up often in conversation because they remember him as the last earnest American peace-broker in the region. As much as this may horrify many back home, people here are waiting for their next Jimmy Carter. It is a powerful sentiment, backed by millions, and forms the root of soft-power; and I think the next American President, whoever he may be, will stand a strong chance of reconstituting it. As the Egyptians grow to learn about both candidates, the door will open to begin a new chapter with them. I think, for example, Newt Gingrich's idea that the next President-elect ought to embark on a round-the-world listening tour, would be a powerful gesture to Egyptians up and down the ranks. The next President ignores the masses of the Middle East at their own peril.