The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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The World’s Vote
Published on November 1, 2008

“Change” is a magical word for the vast majority of contemporary Arabs. Millions of young people especially dream of throwing off the authoritarian anchors around their necks and transforming traditional political systems into more open and transparent ones. Senator Barack Obama’s “change” campaign has thus won the hearts of many hopeful Arabs and that, in turn, is clearly the main reason for the heightened interest in Egypt in this fall’s U.S. electoral race.

Indeed, Obama’s candidacy has generated an unprecedented hype. Millions who might otherwise be indifferent to U.S. politics are enthusiastically tuning into campaign and election coverage to watch a black man with at least some Muslim heritage run for the Oval Office. More than that, many Arabs are getting an unfiltered view of Obama and American politics via satellite or Internet-conveyed American news sources, and this, too, is new. The upshot is that Obama’s popularity is potentially great news for America’s international image. It has spurred hopes among some that a Democratic victory could mark a turning point in American foreign policy. Some think that, if he is elected, Obama’s message could become an international inspiration.

Such enthusiasm, however, is tempered by an underlying distrust of recent American foreign policy. Obama might lose, after all, and most believe a McCain victory would mean continued animosity. Saudi writer Abdul Malek Salman summarized Arab perceptions of McCain, writing, “His conceited attitudes and foreign policy mirror those of the Bush Administration and would likely prolong the era of Bush’s hated policies.”

Even the popular enthusiasm for Obama is detached from policy, however. As much as many Egyptians hope for his victory, at the same time they and most Arabs anticipate that the election will have a negligible impact on U.S. Middle East policy. Partisan politics aside, they believe the overall tone of American foreign policy will remain unchanged. Whether because they believe in conspiracy theories about American politics or just trust their memories, most Arabs assume that no politician can single-handedly revolutionize the constraints that shape American policymaking. Thus a survey of 7,810 Egyptians conducted by the Moheet news service found that 83.15 percent were indifferent when asked which American candidate would best serve Arab and Muslim interests (10.85 percent chose Obama, 1.84 percent voted for McCain, and 4.16 percent were unable to decide). Such attitudes are also reflected in the remark of a senior Arab diplomat in Washington: “America does not deserve a president like Obama.”

Objectively, it is true that neither candidate’s foreign policy platform represents a significant departure from American norms. While Obama distances himself from his Muslim heritage on the American political frontlines, his supporters in the Middle East still often assume that his background presages pro-Arab policies. Even the very conventional and pro-Israeli statements he made to an AIPAC conference in June are forgiven by many Arab commentators who think mistakenly that his background constitutes such a political handicap in America that he is forced to run on a platform of safe positions on key issues like American support for Israel.

Most Egyptians and most Arabs, not really knowing how American society operates, naturally project the ways of their own world onto the United States and onto Barack Obama. If he wins, they are likely to suffer much disappointment. If he loses, they will suffer disappointment of a different kind. It’s not easy these days to be an Arab.

Mohamed Elmenshawy is the editor-in-chief of Taqrir Washington and Arab Insight, both projects of the World Security Institute, a Washington-based think tank.