The Flotilla Fiasco: A View From Cairo

June 3, 2010

If President Barack Obama were hoping for a triumphant, or even merely hopeful, anniversary to his Cairo speech, when he reached out to the Muslim world, he’s in for a disappointment.

Tuesday’s raid by Israeli commandos on a flotilla of ships bearing humanitarian aid to Gaza is unlikely to help US diplomatic efforts in the Middle East.

Press coverage in Egypt has been expansive; the front pages of dailies have been swamped with stories of the attack, the language more florid than usual. The state-owned Al-Ahram put the number of dead at 16 while Al-Masry Al-Youm claimed 20. There have been heated demonstrations throughout the country and the International Union of Scholars has called for more demonstrations on Friday, June 4.

The Egyptian government has come under criticism before for keeping the Rafah border crossing into Gaza closed and turning back humanitarian aid. However, it was unthinkable that the government would not rear back from the kind of backlash that this incident is already causing. President Hosni Mubarak condemned Israeli aggression and promptly announced Tuesday evening the immediate and indefinite opening of the Rafah crossing, to ease Palestinian suffering. The Egyptian government was deeply embarrassed by the fracas and will undoubtedly keep as much distance as possible. Considering it is one of two Arab countries which have a signed treaty with Israel, this deep unease will not work in Israel’s favour.

Tuesday’s papers referred to it as a “massacre,” and said there was widespread international condemnation. However, by Wednesday morning, most people on the street had read that the U.S. had stymied a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel. Although the resolution did call for a lifting of the blockade, the final text merely condemned “the acts” which had led to loss of life. Apparently not content with watering down the resolution, the U.S also reportedly attempted to block demands at the Security Council for an international inquiry—it said that it would be satisfied with an Israeli inquiry. To Arabs, that’s inexplicable. To use an Egyptian saying, it’s like give the keys of the dairy to the cat.

The White House statement was even more vague than the UN one. Apart from emphasizing the “importance of learning all the facts and circumstances” the president expressed regret at the loss of life “and concern for the wounded, many of whom are being treated in Israeli hospitals.”

It would be difficult to explain the amount of repugnance that last statement is generating here in Cairo. Singling out that Israeli hospitals are caring for the wounded suggests to Cairenes that Washington either is unaware of, or is merely unconcerned with, regional feeling on this matter. For Arabs reading this statement, it merely indicates a U.S. president who not only has failed to even mildly censure Israel for what is perceived here as hijacking and murder of civilians, but who praises the Israelis for providing medical care.

Nor has Vice President Joe Biden’s remarks go down well. Biden insisted during a television interview that the raid was “legitimate” and then asked: “What’s the big deal?”

For a great many Arabs, the big deal is that they already feel that the United States is incapable of being objective in anything to do with Israel and are sick of what they view as a dangerously hypocritical double standard.  This general anger may foment specific acts of violent reprisal. Less than three months after General David Petraeus noted that “Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnership with [regional] governments and peoples,” many Arabs are wondering if this is the wisest reaction the Obama administration—which promised a new relationship with Muslim world—can come up with?

As far as Arabs are concerned, it looks like business as usual. President Obama seems well on the way to squandering the reservoir of hope and trust he accrued after his Cairo speech. For many Arabs, he has degenerated from a man whose words were inspirational to one whose words have become empty. After all his rhetoric on reaching out to the Muslim world and fairness in the Middle East Peace Process, to Arab eyes, Israel can continue to act with total impunity and the U.S. will continue to support Israel whatever outrages it commits. For a great many in this part of the world, that perspective makes the U.S. complicit in those acts.

While the intricacies of diplomacy have been many a strong man’s undoing, the perception of blind support for Israel in this incident is utterly inexplicable to the Arab world. If this view is allowed to remain the common wisdom among Arabs, it will undermine the United States’ credibility as a legitimate partner in the Israeli-Palestinian talks and could compromise any future efforts towards a just Middle East Peace.  Many Arabs are asking how the U.S. expects to be taken seriously as a partner if it is perceived to be little more than a camp-follower. This change in perception is especially unfortunate since people in the Middle East were starting to become hopeful that the U.S. recognized that stabilizing the region was in America’s best interests—and that unconditional support of Israel might not be in the best interests of either.

America has repeatedly disappointed the Arab world in recent decades, particularly when it comes to Palestine. When Israel was bombing Lebanon in 2006, Washington held back a ceasefire to allow the Israelis to destroy Hezbollah. The Israelis failed to do that, but they did kill over 1,000 Lebanese civilians, and the U.S is widely viewed here as complicit in their deaths. It is perceived to be complicit in the deaths of another 1,000-2,000 civilians in Gaza from Israeli attacks. It is perceived as complicit in the fact that four of every five Gazans are entirely dependent on humanitarian aid, thanks to the Israeli blockade of Gaza. And Washington’s handling of matters in the last few days are likely to ensure that it is seen as complicit in this matter as well.