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Naiem A. Sherbiny America: A View from Egypt BACKGROUND In Western democracies, the public expresses its views in open elections and through frequent opinion polling. In Egypt, articulating a point of view on any important m atter is tricky for two reasons: the absence of democracy and a sociocultural taboo on polling queries. Gauging Egyptian opinion of America is an example of one of these important matters, where proxies of public opinion are used instead. These prox­ ies include articles, editorials, and cartoons in printed media; commen­ taries on radio and television; public lectures, seminars, and debates (whenever allowed); widespread acerbic oral political jokes; movies, television soap operas, and songs; stage plays; university functions; and (confiscated) books, newsletters, and other publications. The proxies are for the most part neither coordinated nor orches­ trated; they appear as randomly distributed dots of opinion on the sociocultural radar screen. Once an effort is made to connect those dots, a national view, albeit hazy, emerges. It lacks statistical rigor and empirical verification, the standard tools of social research in an open society. In the absence of a better alternative, social researchers use the view that emerges as a second- or third-best option to conventional wisdom. At one end of the proxies is the elite: the sociocultural and intel­ lectual leaders and agents of change who produce such material. At the receiving end is the street: the ordinary, simple, uneducated, or semi­ educated people targeted by these works. More often than not, the elite social research Voi 72 : No 4 : Winter 2005 831 leads while the street follows. Occasionally, the street erupts with spon­ taneous demonstrations, especially following important events, such as nationalization ofthe Suez Canal in 1956, the funeral of Nahas Pasha in 1965, Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 war, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s funeral in 1970, and the 1977 bread riots.1These spontaneous events inspired the elite to follow, offering elaborate explanations and framing the issues in a sophisticated fashion. Since the early 1950s, a third group has emerged in Egypt’s body politic: the military-backed government, whose views frequently diverged from or contradicted both the elite and the street. Not surpris­ ingly, the point of contention is governance, including issues related to the 1950s socialist constitution (which is still in force), the associ­ ated authoritarian and centralized political system, denial of freedom of expression, violations of civil liberties, and fake political representa­ tion in the National Assembly. To ensure its hold on power, the militarybacked government has used its security apparatus to quell stirrings among the elite and control demonstrations in the street. But no m atter how repressive the authorities have been, both elite and street have found ways to express their views. A national view still emerges, repressed and hazy as it may be and has been for the last 50 years. With this background in mind, let us return to Egyptian percep­ tions ofAmerica. To Egyptians, both the elite and the street, the United States has achieved greatness in two centuries, rising from a British colony (as Egypt was) to the world’s sole superpower. Egyptians have, however, admired America from a distance—that is, as long as there was no direct interaction between Americans and Egyptians, as was the case during the nineteenth century and the first three decades of the twenti­ eth. Once interaction began, problems emerged. These included resent­ ment over the collapse in cotton prices during the Great Depression, manifestations of American military prowess in the Middle East, and demonstrations of American economic and financial muscle. These issues are addressed in the discussion that follows. The subtle under­ pinning is that Egyptians seem to resent signs ofUS success because they are reminded of their ineptness and suppression. 832 social research EGYPT’S THREE CIRCLES Egypt is at the intersection of three overlapping geopolitical circles: Africa, the Arab world, and the Muslim world. Gamal Abdel Nasser captured those special ties more than 50 years ago when he said that the Egyptian people belong to all three circles at the same time (Nasser, 1952). Egyptian perceptions of America reflect public senti­ m ents that reverberate w ithin the three circles. W hat happens in...


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