Fire in Cairo: A View From the Arab Street

America needs to make the average Omar an ambassador for our values, writes former State Department official John Kael Weston.

Jewel Samad, AFP / Getty Images

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton heads to Capitol Hill for a closed-to-the-press intelligence briefing today in the aftermath of the protests and violence aimed at American embassies, my thoughts have turned to late 2011.

Then, I spent several days during what’s been called the “Arab Spring” visiting Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the iconic setting adjacent to the famed, orange-hued Egyptian Museum filled with King Tut’s gold and gnarled mummies. The imposing edifice of the U.S. Embassy towered over all, just a few blocks away. A “Fortress America,” its architecture signaled: “stay away, you’re not welcome here.”

My guide there was Mahmoud, a charismatic copy-machine repairman and self-described “inventor, just like Thomas Edison.” Tahrir had been his home for weeks by the time I met him. He had set up camp, living in a small white-canvas tent amid rain puddles and unfiltered cigarette butts that littered the ground. Earlier in 2011, Mahmoud had been in the same place, fighting, at the outset of Egypt’s sometimes bloody revolution. I could tell that he had become one of the leaders in the square.

With Mahmoud as my guide, I sought out as many “average Omars” as I could inside the throngs of Egyptians assembled in the square: students, shopkeepers, tailors, mobile-phone vendors, and on down the line. I listened, seated in a plastic chair, as revolutionaries gathered to talk to the “Amrikan,” as they called me. They offered tea, a smoke, and an Egyptian flag as a memento. We covered the full gamut. They educated me on Egyptian politics. We discussed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and debated President Obama’s June 2009 Cairo speech. More important, we talked about our families, the best nontourist spots to hit, kebab joints, and antique map stores. Almost to a person, they seemed unaware of America’s deep commitment to Egypt via longstanding cultural programs, university exchanges, and various initiatives to reduce poverty, sustain health, and improve quality of life.

In the final hours of my visit in Tahrir, which coincided with a chorus of “calls to prayer” emanating from Cairo’s ornate mosques, I met an energetic Egyptian named Taha. He roamed the square with a self-made bandoleer of spent tear-gas canisters. On Mohammad Mahmoud Street—scene of the police-instigated melee in January 2011, subsequently renamed “Eyes of Freedom Street” by protestors—he asked me to snap digital photos of his clunky, improvised collection of American military imports. Taha’s fingers pointed to unmistakable print on the dented metallic canisters, which read in light-blue lettering: “6230 Riot CS Smoke, Combined Tactical Systems, Jamestown, PA 16134.”

Behind him a row of shuttered Hardees, Pizza Hut, McDonalds, and “Kentucky” chicken storefronts stood on one side of the barricaded block, now designated “Freedom Street” in bright red, spray-painted English. On the other side sat the heavily damaged, broken-glass façade of the vacant American University library—reportedly a site used by government snipers—bookshelves burnt in full view. A few alleyways beyond I saw, once again, a wall of concrete barriers and razor wire demarcating the U.S. Embassy perimeter.

Leaving Tahrir in those quieter days, I found myself wondering just which American image, message, and legacy would be most lasting. The United States of America has far better things than tear-gas canisters and fast food to export abroad.

The tragic loss of Ambassador Stevens and his team in Benghaz—which hit especially close to home for me as a former State Department political officer—highlight a new, troubling dynamic very different than the one I had experienced the previous year. Our best diplomats, patient and instinctive by nature, attempt to bridge differences in foreign lands and build trust. Ambassador Stevens embodied this quieter and effective aspect of America’s involvement in the world. Wars avoided remain the diplomat’s highest symbol of success—an accomplishment for which no medals are awarded or paraded in public.

But while Mubarak is gone, Tahrir’s combustible mix remains: past U.S. support of strongman President Mubarak and his generals; a frozen Israeli-Palestinian peace effort; persistent and widespread youth unemployment; and spotty educational opportunities on top of a lot of young men’s testosterone all contribute to dangerous, even murderous, misunderstandings.

But there are ways to help, and reasons to be hopeful: America still is the world’s standard-bearer of democracy and human rights, despite the stains of Abu Ghraib and justifiable Arab confusion over Guantánamo. The U.S. can do big and good things half a world away in desperately poor, war-torn places. It is in our interest to keep aid programs in place, not shut them off or pull back behind our Atlantic-Pacific oceans, as if they were America’s moats.

One small nonprofit in particular—Spirit of America—has been an important springboard for bringing needed resources into combat zones to help U.S. personnel build relations and trust with local populations. With our longest wars soon ending, the group is now supporting conflict-prevention efforts in West Africa and the Middle East. This innovative effort, staffed by Army and Marine veterans, links the U.S.’s vast private-sector resources and expertise with overseas populations’ urgent needs, helping to inoculate against extremism.

A few weeks before the 14-minute long, anti-Islamic Youtube video sparked protests, violent and otherwise, I received an unexpected email concerning Neil Armstrong’s passing. It came from an Afghan medical student and friend in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, a mountainous eastern province that was once hospitable to Osama bin Laden and where SEAL Team 6 launched their mission into Pakistan.

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The student, Jamshid, wrote:

“so sad about the death of nail armstrong he was the real poineer who had shown his heroism & persuade human to seek & try more and has made clear that nothing is impassable.”

Despite the recent Mideast street violence—which represents only a portion of Muslim society, primarily its easily agitated youth—America’s enduring spirit, Edison to Armstrong, is recognized in even the most remote parts of the world. Jamshid and Mahmoud reflect the majority, these “poineers” of their societies. One youth tinkers with his inventions in a cluttered Cairo copy shop; while the other gazes up at a bright moon—human footprints on it no less—under a shared, starry sky. Like a quietly heroic astronaut-to-be from Wapakoneta, Ohio, now gone, they have similar dreams that “nothing is impassable.”

Jamshid does not see our embassies and consulates as forts, but rather as symbols of a better tomorrow. And I am sure that right now Mahmoud and Taha are in Tahrir Square trying to calm the situation—not inflame it.

There are many more average Omars, Alis and Aishes out there, boys and girls, waiting for us to listen and engage them. Inhabiting the streets, they comprise the most persuasive American ambassadors possible.