Frustration and Distrust

In an interview with, Sayed Mahmud, an Egyptian journalist from Cairo, describes the complex mixture of feelings amongst the people of Egypt.

How is the atmosphere among the Egyptian intellectuals and on the Egyptian streets now?

Sayyed Mahmoud: I think there is a general frustration on the public level and there is certainly an obvious sympathy with the Iraqi side specially in the light of the international public opinion (mainly European) which rejects war. The mood of sympathy has also been strengthened by the reports of the UN-inspectors, which could not prove whether Iraq is in possession of any atomic weapons or not. The feeling of frustration has been increased by the fact that some big Arab countries have not declared their absolute rejection of war. In the opinion of the ordinary Egyptian citizen, some Arab countries have been guilty of facilitating the mission of the American forces. There is also talk of treason on the part of some Gulf-States, as well as a question mark over the role of Egypt and a feeling of sorrow that that role is no longer the “leading” one it was in the past.

Demonstration in Cairo, Foto: AP
Demonstration in Cairo, Foto: AP

​​A song clip of a singer, Sha’ban Abd El-Rahim, who enjoys great popularity with the ordinary people, has recently begun to be heard everywhere. The song deals with an American plot, with the responsibility of Saddam, who “let the foreigners gloat over our grief” and with wishing the Arabic summits success in their endeavour to prevent the war. The reason for the popularity of this singer is a song called “I like Amr Mousa and I hate Israel”, which is being played on satellite channels, including in Iraq (after a part of the song referring to Saddam was deleted). Salama Ahmed Salama, an editor of the Al-Ahram newspaper considers that the song provides the most exact expression of Egyptian public opinion with regard to the Iraqi crisis.

It might be said that there is a high opinion of the Syrian stand on this crisis, which seems more consistent in its rejection of the war and of its justifications from the American point of view. The newspaper “News of Literature” circulated in certain circles, speaks of what it calls “The Arabic inability”, whereas newspapers with a popular and provocative attitude, such as “ Al-Osbou’ ” speak of an international plot run by the countries of “evil”, referring to the USA and Britain.

The stands of the intellectuals fluctuate between two points of view; on the one hand calling upon Saddam to retire and for subsequent elections under the supervision of the UN, which seems similar to the statements of the Iraqi opposition abroad, and on the other hand calling upon Iraq to resist and defend itself against the Zionist American plan to divide and occupy it. The latter is similar to the opinions adopted by trade unions and opinion-forming groups such as journalists and lawyers, as well as the nationalist-oriented groups where the Islamic voice is in the majority.

How is the European stand towards the Iraqi crisis being evaluated?

Mahmoud: We can’t, in fact, speak of a united European stand due to Britain, Spain and Italy favouring the American campaign. There are some jokes and caricature pictures which appear from time to time on the Internet and in electronic mails, showing Tony Blair as a dog of George W. Bush. In addition, the clear German position, which rejects the war and calls for participation in rebuilding Iraq, is certainly admired. This is similar to the case of the French and Russians who both signalled their willingness to use their “veto” right. There are however some suspicions with regard to France, with its De Gaullian heritage, a feeling that it may be attempting to revive its influence in the region. And there are many who believe that Russia will take sides with Arab opinion because it did so in the past. There is no doubt that newspapers and the attitudes of the general public are highly supportive of the positions, which reject the war. There are however, also some who feel that such positions cannot be considered as pro-Arab. They are seen as just an expression of the European fears of a new world order led solely by the USA and in a way that threatens the interests of France and Germany, who are ambitious to play a bigger international role appropriate to their political and economic power.

Is there an obvious hostility towards the USA?

Mahmoud: Of course, there is such a mood of hostility against the USA, and has been for at least the last three years, in which Israel has committed massacres in the areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority. In general, the Arab citizen correlates the Israeli use of force with the American silence and therefore considers the Americans to be the silent partners of the Israelis. Although some Egyptians have sympathy for the victims of September 11, they have a greater degree of sympathy for what they see as the victims of the American campaign against what America called “the terror in Afghanistan”. The Egyptians now consider the USA to be the biggest terrorist country. Newspaper headlines speak of “ American Gangsters”. There are pictures sent to the Egyptian Web pages showing Bush as James Bond or as a cowboy actor in a western film. In highly regarded newspapers there is an ongoing discussion on some Zionist elements in the US administration, which are seen as dictating the anti-Arab policy of Washington.

What sort of expectations are there of Europe?

Mahmoud: The Egyptians wish to see Europe playing a bigger role. They think that this role may shrink the American influence and shift the balance in favour of giving more weight to Arab issues. Others may find France and Germany as an alternative to the previous Soviet Union. They consider that the relative discrepancy between the European and American interests will allow the Arabs a bigger maneuvering margin to manage similar crises in the future.

How are the peace demonstrations in Europe being regarded?

Mahmoud: There is an obvious admiration of the European conscience that has expressed itself in those demonstrations, specially those in Britain, which were a shock for Blair, damaged his popularity and caused embarrassment to his regime. One of the reasons behind this admiration is the comparison between the rights of the European citizen to demonstrate against the war, and those of the Arab citizen, who doesn’t have the same right within his country, a country which, he realizes, has many cultural, national and religious ties with Iraq. This comparison shows the misery of the Arab regimes and their tyrannical nature.

Who, in the opinion of the intellectuals, is responsible for this dangerous crisis?

Mahmoud: I think the people in Egypt are now ahead of the question of who is responsible for this catastrophe. They all consider the situation as an American-British conspiracy, which serves colonial aims. Talk of the bloody dictatorship of Saddam and his invasion of Kuwait is no longer accepted, even in those intellectual circles with an American culture orientation, because such talk is always likely to be interpreted as a kind of collaboration of the sort which led to the American intervention. This is a charge which is hard to accept. On the other hand, it is difficult within any context to declare support for the American campaign, even if it aims at rescuing Iraq from a dictator.

There are other intellectuals, who talk of the responsibility of the culture of tyranny, which allows such regimes to exist. Such regimes, it is argued, continuously lead their peoples into adventures and conflicts with super powers just to enable their leaders to confirm their leadership. Other intellectuals not only call for the retirement and expulsion of Saddam but also for the retirement of all of his counterparts in other Arab countries, who are the products of the totalitarian environments and post-national independence systems, which confiscated the election rights of their peoples. In this context, no difference is made between the co-operating, pro-American regimes mostly described as “collaborator Gulf states”, and the revolutionary systems, whose rejection of the American campaign is based on securing support for their attitude, which calls for conflict with the West and Zionism. No difference is made here as long as this rejection is used to justify their right to remain in power, because any settlement of the conflict shall at the same time put an end to their legitimacy and their monopoly of power.

Interview: Mona Naggar,

Translation from Arabic: Mustafa Al-Slaiman

Sayyed Mahmoud Mustafa is an Egyptian Journalist with Al-Ahram international and Al-Hayat who lives in Cairo.