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Why Arabs Aren't Buying Uncle Sam

Time Magazine
August 20, 2002


Sometimes a cigarette isn't just a cigarette. Nowhere is that more evident, these days, than in Cairo. For four consecutive summers, I've met friends for drinks at the Greek Club downtown in the Egyptian capital, but this year there's a new ritual to our gathering: Before sitting down, everyone tosses their pack of cigarettes onto the table for a brand inspection. Gauloise (French), Cleopatra (Egyptian) and Rothmans (Canadian) pass without comment, but a pack of Marlboros demands explanation. Boycotting American cigarettes has become a standard political statement in a city where the vast majority of urban professionals are both smokers and fierce critics of Israel's military campaign in Palestinian territories. In the minds of many Cairenes, Israel and the United States have become inseparable.

The logic of the cigarette boycott may be questionable — like many other "American" goods on the boycott list, the Marlboros on sale in Egypt are actually produced here — but it does provide an emotional outlet for anger against America, whose unconditional support for Israel, people believe, enables what they see as the Jewish state's ongoing assault on Palestinian society. The guilty Marlboro-smoker must typically have prepared some defense, as my friend Amr did last week: "I just came back from Ramallah, and I'll have you know, it makes no difference on the ground what you smoke."

The boycott has its parallel in consumer life across the Middle East, as many Arabs seek to their match their buying habits to the common political view of the U.S. as a self-serving, hypocritical power that threatens the region. And that image alarms not only merchants trying to move American products, but also Washington's policy makers, who see it as a dangerous distortion of the administration's real foreign policy message. That's why the White House recently created an "Office of Global Communications," whose task will be to clean up America's image abroad by, for example, clarifying to Arabs angry at Israel's misdeeds why they shouldn't hold the U.S. accountable. It isn't the policies that produce hostility abroad, goes the thinking in Washington, but poor salesmanship — nothing that an overhaul of the country's public diplomacy apparatus won't be able to fix.

A Council of Foreign Relations task force recently addressed this very issue in a report that offered Washington prescriptions for repairing its image. An example message in the report suggests the United States can begin by reframing its ties with Israel as a "commitment to the survival of Israel" rather than as an expression of "unconditional support." Perhaps if Arabs understood how deeply sympathy for Israel runs across American political and religious groups, they might be less dismayed by the Bush Administration's green-light for Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's military actions.

Reading the report, one wonders how seriously its crafters take their own recommendations. Most Egyptians I know have a sophisticated understanding of how the Bush Administration's support for Israel works, and what it means. "Sharon is a 'man of peace,' Israel must defend herself, but the Palestinians can just go drown," says Ahmed Mounir, a U.S.-educated businessman, as we watch al-Jazeera in his living room. Mounir has family in the U.S., and a deep desire to feel differently about a country that schooled him, and in many other ways earns his admiration. But he's disappointed by how little effort the Bush administration makes to engage with Palestinians, to meet and take seriously their leaders, and to treat Palestinian needs and aspirations on the same level as those of Israelis. Mounir and his family have already canceled their usual summer trip to the East Coast, their affection for the U.S. having shifted to a belief that it's a country "hostile to Arabs, as a people, as a nation." This is what the CFR report terms "attitudinal resistance" to American policy, and its depth and intensity is unlikely to be reversed by slick re-packaging.

Some planners in Washington believe they may have an easier time reaching the next generation of Arabs, and are pleased by the early success of their new Arabic-language station, Radio Sawa ("together"). Unlike the staid and preachy Voice of America (VOA), Radio Sawa targets a youth audience with trendy American and Arab pop music, attempting to get Washington's take on the news across in snippets that infrequently interrupt the Top 40 barrage. So far, only Arab audiences in Jordan, Dubai, and Kuwait have been able to tune in to Radio Sawa (the signal doesn't reach Cairo or Beirut clearly), but its popularity doesn't necessarily signal an acceptance of an American political message. Because its clear in Cairo that many Arabs are happy to go on consuming American products — from cigarettes to radio stations — while remaining fiercely critical of American policies. Just ask the staff at McDonald's in Cairo, who have grown accustomed to their outlets being attacked in anti-Israel protests by the same university students who are usually on line for fries.