US policy in the Arab world has long been widely unpopular, to put it mildly. Nonetheless, many in the region recognised the influence of the US on their governments and consequentially on their own lives, and paid careful attention to American statements. Signs of change in President Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo were met with great enthusiasm. From the halls of Cairo University to the old city’s souks, Obama was a near-iconic figure.
Throughout the region, people celebrated Obama as a potentially revolutionary force via US policy in the Arab world. They were quick to be disappointed, however, as they came to realise the emptiness of the president’s rhetoric, especially regarding Palestine, among the most important issues for many throughout the region.
The Arab uprisings transformed many peoples’ views on the role played by the US in their region. While Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did offer verbal support to most of the protest movements, hypocritical selective support, initial American hesitation in backing the uprisings and past policies bolstering dictatorships were not forgotten.
More crucially, it became clear to many that the outcome of the uprisings was up to them, and not to US policymakers. In the case of Egypt, US statements only called for Hosni Mubarak to step down when it became entirely clear that it was inevitable. While the gesture may have been appreciated by parts of the Egyptian opposition, it was not viewed as a significant turning point.
Declared support for the uprisings also came to plainly confirm the incongruity between US statements and actions. Even while Obama celebrated Egyptian protesters, US-made tear gas, which continued to be sent to Cairo long after the toppling of Mubarak, confirmed for many that American policy remained antagonistic to popular Arab interests. While US actions such as this may be obstacles to realise popular interests in the Arab world, they are no longer viewed as deterministic.
Obama’s recent visit to the occupied 1948 Palestinian territories and West Bank was the first of his presidency. Here in the US, Obama’s tour of the area and speeches in Jerusalem and Ramallah were widely covered; many American media outlets commended Obama’s performance as a bold call for peace.
Obama in Israel on first official visit
In Palestine, it was viewed quite differently. Young activists referred to the speeches as “insipid” and “sycophant”. The part of Obama’s Jerusalem speech that many Palestinians paid most attention to was an interruption by Palestinian audience member Rabeea Eid:
“Did you really come here for peace or to give Israel more weapons to kill and destroy the Palestinian people? Did you happen to see the apartheid wall on your way here?
There are Palestinians sitting in this hall. This state should be for all of its citizens, not a Jewish state only.
Who killed Rachel Corrie? Rachel Corrie was killed by your money and weapons!”
More important than the points Eid brought up was Obama’s reaction. As Eid was dragged out of the hall and handed over to police, Obama referred to the interruption as a good display of “lively debate”, to which he was greeted with wild applause from the Israeli audience. Obama even joked about how he was accustomed to similar incidents at home.
In Palestine, news and recordings of the incident quickly spread. While Obama may not have heard the actual statements made by Eid, his failure to address any of these issues throughout his visit and the irony of his response, said cheerfully just as Eid was dragged away and handcuffed, made him a mockery in Palestinian eyes.
The US is increasingly irrelevant to movements throughout the region. In his March visit to Cairo, Secretary of State John Kerry extended invitations to meet with members of opposition parties. Many turned him down. Distour party member Gamila Ismail explained her rejection of the invitation in a scathing letter to Kerry, in which she criticised self-interested US policy that has supported repressive regimes in Egypt for decades. Ismail asked the US to step back and allow revolutionaries to continue their struggle. She turned American rhetoric upside down as she wrote:
“This is a revolution that will teach the world, as Obama, your president, has said. And we want to teach the world and be a model for it. And we will become different than what you see. Your embassy reports see that we do not deserve anything except this [limited] amount of democracy. And that this [limited] amount is ‘enough’.”
With the Arab uprisings, a new wave has emerged – one less forgiving of decades of American antagonism towards popular Arab interests, and less willing to allow for a continuation of self-entitled US claims to dominance of the regional trajectory.
Sarah Mousa graduated from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 2010, and was a 2010-2011 Fulbright Scholar in Egypt. She is currently a graduate student at the Center of Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University.