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Analysis: Arab Observers On The U.S. Presidential Election

  • Daniel Kimmage

Bush declaring victory on 3 November Most Arab observers approached the U.S. presidential election without the burden of high expectations. President George W. Bush has not fared well on the editorial pages of Arab newspapers, yet Senator John Kerry seemed to offer few concrete policy alternatives and generated scant enthusiasm. But with U.S. troops still in Iraq, and U.S. power seen as a decisive factor in virtually everything that happens in the region, the presidential contest drew intense scrutiny from Arab opinion makers. The arguments, insights, and hopes that follow are only a small part of the wide-ranging Arab debate that began over the struggle for the presidency and will now shift to the ramifications of a second term for President Bush.

Before The Election

Writing in Kuwait's "Al-Qabas" on 2 November, Jabir al-Ansari used the Arab disappointments that have followed U.S. presidential elections as a lens to focus attention on the Arab world's own failings:

"Students of modern Arab history can chronicle the successive Arab disappointments at the results of American presidential elections, one president after another, Republican or Democrat. Even where the president showed an inclination to listen to the Arab point of view, like the Republican Eisenhower or the Democrat Kennedy, the complexity of the Arab plight, the entrenched weakness at its roots, and an absence of positive initiatives conspired to negate these opportunities....

"If Arab regimes are powerless, are there any positive indications of a grassroots revival from within? Is there any hope in the so-called vital forces of the community and the younger generation? Where is it? What does it want?

"Clearly, anger is driving these forces and finding its expression in a 'fundamentalism' that rejects everything and hates everything, even itself.

"One often hears talk of the 'self-hating Jew.' One can easily point to the 'self-hating Arab.' He is not alone; he is legion. And he seems to be saying, 'I don't care what happens after me, or what happens to me and to my enemies.' This surging suicidal wave does not lack a spirit of sacrifice. Yet it surely lacks the power to build.

"Our Arab nation has not stinted in sacrifice and heroism. But where is its constructive political intellect, its capacity for rebuilding, and not for suicide.... [This is the question that matters more than] whether Bush wins or Kerry."

Fahmi Huwaydi explained to readers of Egypt's "Al-Ahram" on 2 November why he felt that a Bush defeat would usher in positive change:

"The similarity between Bush's and Kerry's positions, especially on Iraq and Palestine, has made many deeply pessimistic about the future. They feel that victory or defeat for either will not change anything in the part of the American political arena that concerns us. I agree in the short term, but I feel that the difference between the two men could emerge in the long term. The main reason is that President Bush's loss would not be his alone. It would also mean the defeat of the team of right-wingers and neo-conservatives that surrounds him and carries him. They are a mixture of radical proponents of hegemonic imperialism and allies of 'Israel.' This team hijacked the American administration and brought about a historic coup in the United States in politics and civil liberties."

Ali Hamadah wrote in Lebanon's "Al-Nahar" on 2 November about the crucial importance of the election and the difficulties it poses for Arab-American voters:

"The president of the United States will be, more or less, the president of the world. This is why billions of people outside the United States care about who will enter the White House after 2 November (although the new president takes office on 20 January). And this, in particular, is why Arabs care whether Americans will elect George W. Bush or John Kerry.... The choice is a dismaying one for Arabs. Experience indicates that Arab votes usually go to the candidate they feel has demonstrated greater empathy for Arab issues, or less bias and more sincerity. But the promises quickly evaporate once the election campaign is over and the U.S. president becomes a prisoner of the executive and legislative branches of the machinery of power in Washington. And the Arabs are once again left alone with their disappointment."

Writing in Egypt's "Al-Ahram" on 3 November, Atif al-Ghamri lamented the "convergence" of Bush's and Kerry's positions on Israel:

"...despite the differences between Bush and Kerry on many foreign-policy issues, when it comes to the Arab world, their positions sometimes converge. Bush's stand on Israel is well-known, but the Kerry campaign's adviser on the Middle East, Jay Footlik, put out a position paper stating that Kerry's policy on Israel and the Palestinians will not differ from Bush's policy, and that Israel's cause is America's cause."

In an editorial on 2 November, Saudi Arabia's "Al-Jazirah" linked the election to the bloodshed in Iraq:

"The U.S. election campaign is fed, in part, by the gushing rivers of Iraqi blood that American soldiers are spilling in distant Iraq, far removed from the push-and-pull excitement that accompanies the voting in America. What is happening on American soil translates into the bitter realities of superpower rule in Iraq. And while some may welcome the sight of this blood, considering it the price that must be paid for American security, as the official American explanation goes, others may see in it a glaring failure to put affairs in order. They then translate their feelings into voting decisions and deny President Bush their votes...."

The prospect of a Bush second term inspired thoughts of illness and catastrophe in Hasan Nafi'ah in the London-based pan-Arab daily "Al-Hayat" on 3 November:

"If the American people choose to renew their trust in President Bush, this decision can only mean that the immune system of the American body politic has failed and that American democracy has begun to succumb to the viruses of the neo-conservatives, who will not leave it alone until it is a lifeless corpse. But if the American people decide to change their president of the last four years, it could presage the eclipse of the neo-conservatives, and perhaps the complete and total collapse of their religiously tinged imperial project.

"I feel strongly today that the world may move closer to a real catastrophe if the current election results in a Bush victory. The neo-conservatives will likely interpret such a success as a new mandate for their project, a renewal of trust in them, and an endorsement for Bush to stay the course. Should this happen, I would not rule out an American attempt to resolve the Iraqi crisis through purely military means, even if that would require using force against Iran, Syria, and Hizballah. This could drag the entire region into a large-scale war accompanied by civil wars that will plunge it into complete chaos."

Sawsan al-Abtah, writing in the London-based pan-Arab daily "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" on 2 November, pondered the paradox of Hollywood, where the stars shun conservative presidents but blockbusters promote a muscular image of America:

"Today, the countdown has begun and all eyes look to a new world. Will Americans decide to vote for an administration that gives them the illusion of security even as it actively incites hatred against them -- which would be a victory for the American cowboy and the many films that the Pentagon has financed to glorify the role of the American military hero and his noble mission to spread democracy and peace even as he rains bombs of mass death down on the people -- or will America listen this time to the repentant denizens of Hollywood, who will vote against Bush the war leader. We do not know whether their repentance is sincere, but it is significant for those who choose to consider it."

And in London's "Al-Hayat" on 2 November, Ghassan Sharbal explained why no one can afford to ignore the U.S. election:

"A resident of the 'global village' can afford to ignore the tsar of the Kremlin. He need not memorize the name of the man in Charles de Gaulle's office. Or the master of 10 Downing Street. He can deem China distant and choose not to trouble himself with its ruler. Nothing obligates him to follow the fate of Japanese governments. And he can safely consider the German chancellor a matter of importance to Germans, in the first place, and then to Europeans. But America is different. All of our planet's inhabitants vote in its elections, at least with their feelings, fears, and hopes.

"The Arabs care who will be president because it affects their peace and stability, their oil, and their dreams. The mocking rhetoric of the journalists, writers, and analysts on the satellite channels changes nothing. The Arabs have lost their ability to influence events. The most they can hope to gain is a president who is less biased and less reckless. They know in their heart of hearts that the decisions the president makes can speed the breakdowns [of the Arab world] just as they can reduce, or even end, tensions.

"It hurts to say that the Americans go to the polls to choose a president for the world for the next four years. This has nothing to do with American policies; it's a reflection of the balance of power. When the Americans elect a president, we have no choice but to get used to him, pay the price for his mistakes...and hope that his opponent wins in the next election!"

After The Election

Salamah Na'mat noted in London's "Al-Hayat" on 4 November that opposition to President Bush made for strange bedfellows before the election, bringing together notorious terrorists and pillars of the international community. And those weren't the only strange bedfellows she found in the election:

"It's true that many people in the world have reasons, some of them legitimate, for wanting to see the author of the 'axis of evil' theory fall. But the most striking thing is that this odd coalition of internationally respected leaders and individuals such as [Al-Qaeda members Osama] bin Laden and [Abu Mus'ab] al-Zarqawi found themselves in the same opposing camp as they rushed to cast their votes in the U.S. election.

"It was also noteworthy that Arab-Americans and American Muslims voted by an overwhelming majority for the democratic candidate, as did American Jews, and by approximately the same margin. Despite the different reasons driving these two mutually antagonistic groups, in theory at least one can say that the U.S. election created mythical alliances that no one predicted."

Shakir al-Nablusi cheered President Bush's reelection on elaph.com on 3 November:

"Congratulations to President George Bush on his tremendous success in the presidential election. And congratulations to the Republican Party on its tremendous success in both houses of Congress....

"This tremendous success is the success of American foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, and more particularly in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in the war on terror.

"The American people, more than 100 million voters, have elected a president of freedom who liberated Iraq, liberated Afghanistan, and has promised to establish a Palestinian state in the year 2005. He is also the son of the liberator of Kuwait.

"Arab-Americans who voted for Kerry made a big mistake.... They are always putting their eggs in the wrong basket. They have no clear political vision because they lack knowledge and experience, they are poor students of history, and they have no guidance. The terrorists and the preachers of bloodshed failed, chief among them bin Laden and the Arab media, which spent the entire month braying about a Bush defeat."

Algeria's "Al-Khabar" chose a somber tone to convey news of President Bush's reelection on 4 November:

"The 44th general election in the history of the United States ended in a second term for Republican George Bush, contrary to the wishes of most capitals in the world, which were waiting for another decision from the American people, namely, a second look at a foreign policy that has relied on war to secure the national interest.

"With the exception of Britain's Tony Blair, Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, Australia's John Howard, and Russia's Vladimir Putin, who welcomed Bush's victory, the result came as a shock to the rest of the world's great capitals."

Iraq's "Al-Rafidayn" looked for reactions from the man in the Iraqi street on 3 November:

"Even as U.S. President George Bush was preparing to announce that he has won a second term, the man in the Iraqi street today, Wednesday, said that what he cares about is staying alive, and not who becomes the next president of the United States. In front of a grocery store in Baghdad, George Butrus said, 'We're too preoccupied with our own problems, with these explosions and the lack of stability, these destructive types, to care about an election somewhere.'

"In an store selling audio equipment, Ra'ad Fadil said: 'American policy won't change whether Bush or Kerry is in the White House. It doesn't matter to us. Will Kerry change occupation to liberation? No. Has Bush kept his promises? No. We'll be at the mercy of the winner whoever he is.'

"Ibrahim Khalil, a shop owner, said: 'They're all the same, but I'd prefer Kerry, since change is good. We've seen nothing from Bush. But you never know, Kerry could surprise us.'

"Hisham Yusuf, a beekeeper in Al-Basrah, said: 'We know from experience that American policy doesn't change when the presidents change. What I care about are the elections in my country.'"

Despite some fears, the editors of Jordan's "Al-Dustur" saw a golden opportunity on 4 November:

"Yes, there are fears that Bush will continue his aggressive policy, perhaps by invading Arab and Islamic countries, particularly Syria and Iran, because they allegedly support terror. But these fears may no longer be justified given the American retreat, both official and popular, in the face of war and the losses the Iraqi resistance has inflicted on the Americans. It is to be hoped that President Bush takes another look at the mistaken policies that have sparked Arab and Islamic hostility toward America. There is a golden opportunity to turn over a new leaf by balancing America's real interest and the interests of all the countries and peoples in the region, without exception and without bias."

The editors of Qatar's "Al-Rayah" also expressed guarded optimism on 4 November:

"We believe that the reelection of President Bush provides an opportunity to review American policy toward our region. The next four years can be put to good use overcoming the mistakes that have been made and playing a historic role in resolving the Palestinian issue in accordance with the principles of international law to secure the Palestinian people their national rights. The Bush administration can also assume a historic responsibility for extricating Iraq from its current crisis, and for making a serious effort to involve the international community in dealing with the security situation and political issues there. And there are other international issues that require American political action that is calmer, more moderate, more respectful of the UN charter, and at a greater remove from the failed ideology of preventive wars and machismo."

Writing in Lebanon's "Al-Safir" on 4 November, Joseph Samaha saw the reelection of President Bush as the triumph of ideology in America and voiced a grim prediction for the president's second term:

"Ideology has managed to move millions of people from one place to another. They have gone from recognizing their interests to voting against their interests. Bush undeniably symbolizes a policy of extreme social bias toward an absurdly wealthy minority. Nonetheless, he garnered the majority of votes from poor white taxpayers. These people responded to the crisis they are experiencing by falling hook, line, and sinker for the right to bear arms, support for the death penalty, a rejection of homosexual marriage, and opposition to abortion. They wanted no more collapse in their collapsing world. Christian fundamentalist movements played their role to the hilt. They are a tool for placing the marginalized in the service of others, a powerful brainwashing mechanism that produces the following equation: live poor, but vote for the rich because your spiritual wealth is an everlasting fortune. Is this not the 'opium of the masses'?"

"...with his popular mandate, Bush in his second term may make us long for Bush in his first term, just as Bush Jr. has made us long for Bush Sr."

Finally, Ma'mun Fandi turned his attention in "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" on 4 November to the message Americans sent with their votes, and why Arab and European analysts failed to see the writing on the wall:

"Americans said a clear 'no,' and in a popular-vote majority that is the largest in the history of American presidential elections, to the rest of the world's elite, which hates George Bush and the policies of the neo-conservatives.

"...The American 'no' is deadly serious for the world outside of America. The first thing the margin of more than 2 million votes means is that Americans have bestowed popular legitimacy on two preventive wars, to rapid intervention to preempt danger before it strikes, defend American influence, and perhaps even extend it.

"I felt from the beginning that Bush would win. The reason was simple -- whenever I saw Arab analysts on Arab satellite stations, they projected a Kerry victory. I knew he would lose. We always bet on the wrong horse.

"Arab and European analysts misread the American mood. They thought that the elite they mix with in cities like New York, Washington, and Los Angeles was America. The truth is that the America that sends its sons off to war is the America of the center and the South, the America of Ohio, Illinois, Arkansas, and Texas. Most of the analysts and writers never encounter residents of those states who are truck drivers or workers. That's why they thought that America would vote for John Kerry -- because most of the people around them voted for Kerry. In Washington, D.C., for example, where most Arab and European journalists live, 90 percent voted for Kerry and only 10 percent voted for Bush."

[For reaction from around the world to the U.S. presidential election, see RFE/RL's webpage "World Reacts To U.S. Election".]
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