Many Arabs too angry to listen to America

Sunday, May 9, 2004

CAIRO, Egypt -- When U.S. ambassador David Welch took the Egyptian media to task for "proposing crazy conspiracy theories, or attacking the United States in very hostile terms," Egypt's Journalists Syndicate responded by urging a boycott.

That was months before the Iraq prisoner-abuse scandal emerged, but the angry and unyielding reaction to Welch's complaint showed how hostile Arab opinion already was to America.

Even before America invaded Iraq, its Middle East policies -- particularly its support of Israel -- were viewed as anti-Arab. Its reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks was portrayed as anti-Muslim. And now Arabs are saying the prisoner-abuse scandal shows the United States is both.

President Bush, who took the extraordinary step of trying to appeal directly to Arabs with appearances Wednesday on two Arabic television stations, acknowledged that the prisoner abuse makes it harder to get the U.S. message across to Arabs.

"I think people in the Middle East who want to dislike America will use this as an excuse to remind people about their dislike," the president told the Al-Arabiya network.

Bush also acknowledged to an Egyptian newspaper that "times are tough" for the United States and the Middle East and again repeatedly apologized for U.S. soldiers' conduct in Iraq, according to an interview published Friday.

Egyptian political scientist Gehad Auda said the dislike is coupled with, and perhaps compounded by, ignorance of American ways. Arabs who heard Bush, for example, were likely frustrated by his refusal to condemn the soldiers involved until the investigation was complete.

"Because Arabs are not bred in a democracy, they don't understand the whole idea of an investigation, they don't understand due process," Auda said.

Auda noted -- as have other Arab commentators -- that few of the newspapers and TV stations now in uproar raised their voices when Saddam Hussein was torturing Iraqis. Even as they excoriated America's behavior in Iraq, Arab media were paying much less attention to accusations from the United Nations and human rights groups that an Arab government, that of Sudan, is committing atrocities against its own people.

America's contributions to Arabs, from clean drinking water for Egyptians to scholarships for Palestinians, also often are ignored. Egypt is the largest recipient of U.S. aid after Israel -- some $2 billion a year in military and economic assistance. Andrew Natsios, director of the U.S. Agency for International Development, wrote to the Paris-based International Herald Tribune this week to point out that America has donated $1.3 billion in the last 11 years to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

On Wednesday, as Bush was appearing on Arab television, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo was distributing a protest against three Egyptian newspapers for publishing faked photographs of American soldiers sexually abusing female prisoners in Iraq.

"The publication needlessly inflames an already heated atmosphere," the Embassy said.

Editors of the newspapers involved rejected the U.S. protest, saying the publication was in the context of fair criticism of American soldiers accused of abusing Iraqi prisoners.

"It is better for the embassy to hide in shame" because of the prisoner abuse case, said Mustafa Bakri, editor of the weekly Al-Osboa. "The ambassador should resign if he has the slightest feeling about what happened."

While many Arab governments are quietly sharing intelligence with Washington, few are openly allying with its war on terror for fear of angering their anti-American publics. Arab support for America's nation-building effort in Iraq is even thinner.

Embassy spokesman Philip Frayne said despite the boycott call, the ambassador is still interviewed by Egyptian media. But the rhetoric hasn't changed.

"The issue isn't really whether we can get out our messages, the issue is whether they aren't overwhelmed by far more numerous negative criticism," Frayne said.

Polls "have shown that the U.S. government enjoys little credibility in much of the Arab world," Frayne said, attributing much of that to the perception of a U.S. pro-Israel bias.

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