Bronzed for Obama

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Above: Picture of man repainting lampposts near Cairo University ahead of the Obama visit, from al-Masri al-Youm.

Barack Obama's visit to Cairo to deliver a speech "to the Muslim world", whatever that means, has many ironies, not the least of which is that this visit by the "leader of the free world" has caused a the tired dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak to prim itself up in anticipation. Trees are being planted, august university domes cleaned, marble floors polished in the grand tradition of Mubarak's Egypt: whatever you do, no matter how things are going, don't look bad in front of the foreigners. When I worked at the Cairo Times, a now defunct English-language weekly that ran between 1997 and 2004, we called this the "no donkeys on the cover" rule.

Basically it meant that while we did little self-censorship (and indeed were often punished for our political coverage), one rule the publisher insisted on not breaking was the ban on depicting poverty. The ultimate insult to the regime, apparently, was not insulting the president, but depicting Egypt as it sometimes -- often -- can be: a country where large parts of the population live in poverty, sometimes without enough wealth to maintain personal dignity, and where traditional means of transport such as donkeys are judged to be synonymous with backwardness. Nevermind that a donkey is a useful animal and that it's perfectly normal that those who can't afford cars use them in their business, usually to transport goods, and that this scene is quite banal in most of the developing world. The Egypt the government wants people to see, and that Obama will be shown, is the one that alternates between monuments and friendly waiters, the Egypt's of the "Red Sea Riviera" ads.

This is why, even if one likes Obama and has high hopes that his policies will depart from two decades of a wrong-headed to the Israeli-Arab conflict in particular, this visits leaves one feeling very uneasy. As I watched Obama kiss Mubarak on both cheeks this morning, I felt this pageantry was in terrible taste and it's hard to shake that feeling.

As Hossam wrote in a NYT op-ed, this is the bottom line:

President Obama should not have decided to come to Egypt. The visit is a clear endorsement of President Hosni Mubarak, the ailing 81-year-old dictator who has ruled with martial law, secret police and torture chambers. No words that Mr. Obama will say can change this perception that Americans are supporting a dictator with their more than $1 billion in annual aid.

The Western press is clearly excited about Mr. Obama’s “significant” choice of Egypt, and his destination, Cairo University, which the news media seem to consider a symbol of enlightenment, secularism and freedom.

The truth is that for years, Cairo University students have been demonstrating against the rising cost of education, demanding the university subsidize expensive text books, only to be rebuked by the authorities, who claim no funds are available. Yet the university somehow managed to find the money to polish up the building dome that will shine above Mr. Obama’s head when he delivers his address.

As for the other host of the president’s visit, Al Azhar University, one of its students, Kareem Amer, is languishing in prison after university officials reported his “infidel, un-Islamic” views to the government, earning him a four-year sentence in 2007. In advance of the visit, Egyptian security forces have rounded up hundreds of foreign students at Al Azhar.


Well, he's here now. Let's see if he can redeem himself by what he says.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.