A desert wind blew across El Gezira Street, a busy road along the Nile, as Miriam Hammoud and I talked to ordinary Egyptians today about tomorrow’s impending visit by Barack Obama.
The inescapable conclusion from our sampling of local opinion: If President Obama wants to win friends and influence people in this part of the world, he has more than his work cut out for him.
“I would like you to notice how the people in the streets react to Obama—he’s not going to get too much of a reaction,” import-export businessman Yasser Mohammed predicted as traffic whizzed by and we were periodically hot-blasted like air-popped popcorn—at one point re-creating a Marilyn Monroe-over-the-subway-grate scenario with Miriam’s businesslike skirt. “The people have been feeling let down over the past eight years,” he told us. “Before that, they would meet and greet the American president with all their hearts. Now, because of what has happened, they don’t have any trust and faith in any president. So Obama can’t change our minds with just one speech.”
Greta Van Susteren was up in business class, having arranged to meet up and travel with Obama’s somewhat under-the-radar secretary of State, a certain Hillary Clinton.
The 44-year-old Mohammed, the father of three daughters who are studying French, said Obama would do well to apologize for the conduct of his predecessor.
“George W. Bush caused a lot of trouble and did so much damage to Egyptian-American relations,” Mohammed said. “When George W. Bush was president for eight years, he demolished the Middle East and was with Israel all that time. With Iraq, Bush basically felt that he had to do the job his father didn’t finish off, and it was like he had this revenge to play out. ‘OK, Dad, I’ll finish off what you didn’t.’”
Miriam, a London-born Arabic speaker and former flight attendant, interpreted Mohammed’s observations, along with those of other Cairo residents, as we strolled along the Nile. These days, she’s a personal assistant to Egyptian industrialist Shafik Gabr, who invited The Daily Beast and others to be his guest here during this pivotal moment in U.S.-Egyptian relations, and tonight is hosting a dinner at his hilltop villa for Cairo opinion leaders and a few journalists, who also came on the EgyptAir flight this morning. Fox News personality Greta Van Susteren was up in business class, having arranged to meet up and travel with Obama’s somewhat under-the-radar secretary of State, a certain Hillary Clinton, who apparently can use the attention of a full-dress television interview.
This normally teeming capital city of eight million souls—with its sunbaked, occasionally crumbling skyline punctuated by ramshackle apartment buildings, minarets, and mosques—is oddly becalmed, for all practical purposes on lockdown in advance of the president’s visit. The people we ran into on the street seemed willing to give Obama personally the benefit of the doubt, but they were skeptical of the United States government. For example:
• Mr. Magdi, a 54-year-old office worker: “I’m hoping he’s going to sort out the Palestinian-Israeli fight, because America is the cause of the problems there and it’s for them to sort it out.”
• Abdullah, Mr. Magdi’s 42-year-old coworker: “I want to give this message to the people in America. They have got these bad thoughts about the Muslim people. The Muslim people are very kind, very goodhearted, and they’re not going to do anything that is going to hurt people. I don’t like how people from the United States hate the Muslim society. I want Obama to change people’s thoughts about Muslims, especially that they’re all terrorists.”
• Aza, a 45-year-old mother of four who teaches special-needs children: “The people like Obama very much. He seems to like the Arab world and Muslims. I hope he will say that America will help Egypt, and there will be no more war, no more blood, and that he will do everything he can so that Israel and Palestine can live in peace.”
Lloyd Grove is a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.