In Egypt, anti-US ire doesn't mean giving up your Nikes
Youths in Cairo protest the war in Iraq, but still often admire American values.
EGYPT, CAIRO — Ahmed Samir was living the high life.
A bartender at Cairo's Hard Rock Cafe, he got good tips, free company baseball caps - and plenty of winks from the girls. He perfected his American slang and developed a penchant for massive cheeseburgers smothered in Heinz ketchup.
Then President Bush began sounding the call for war in Iraq, and the wealthy youngsters who frequented the place called for a boycott of all things "American." Soon enough, with the echo of Grateful Dead songs bouncing off the empty tables, Mr. Samir found himself out of a job.
Back living in his mother's apartment in Cairo's suburbs, idly whiling away the day listening to Aerosmith and watching the war unfold on TV, Samir admits to great frustrations: He loves his Western lifestyle, and while he is furious at the US government for attacking his "Muslim brothers" and understands the boycott, he is reluctant to join in.
"So, I like rock and roll and dream of going to New York City," he says. "Does that mean I support the war?"
Samir is typical of middle- and upper-middle-class young adults here, who grew up emulating American popular culture and identifying with Western values - such as the very freedom of expression, prohibited in virtually all of the Arab world, that they are now exercising to protest war in Iraq.
This war, along with what they say is the failure of the US to address the Palestinians' struggle for a homeland, finds young Egyptians torn between their disappointment with US foreign policy and their personal attachment to - and even admiration of - American culture and ways.
"Of course, we are angry with Bush and the brutality of war - not with American people or their culture," says Nada El Gammal, a political-science major at the prestigious American University in Cairo (AUC). Ms. Gammal chose AUC, she says, because the "American education system is superior."
And yet even as her anger at the war grows and her appetite for anything connected to America wanes, she is thinking of applying to Georgetown University in Washington for graduate work.
"It was my father's dream for me for a long time," she admits.
Since the start of the campaign in Iraq last week, there have been several demonstrations at the AUC campus, with students chanting "US terrorism" and burning the Stars and Stripes. A large Iraqi flag now hangs in the courtyard near the library, and hundreds of police in riot gear stand outside the front entrance to contain any violence.
In fiery speeches between classes, student leaders admonish others to boycott the McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken around the corner, cancel their vacations or student-exchange trips to the US, and stop wearing American-labeled clothing.
Similar protests are taking place across the country, both at Egyptian universities and at the many private so-called American colleges - which teach in English, follow American curricula, and often have ties to US colleges - that have sprung up in Egypt, and elsewhere around the Arab world, over the past decade.
But going off American products cold turkey is not always easy.
"Its hard to be honest about these boycotts," admits preppy psychology student Khalid Nasser, who is dressed, like almost everyone else on AUC's campus, in Levi's jeans and Nike sneakers. "Last week, a student leader was up there denouncing America wearing a UCLA sweatshirt.... We don't always put one and one together," he admits.
Mr. Nasser used to spend his summers with his cousins in New Jersey. But since Sept. 11, 2001, he has stayed away.
"I don't want to be humiliated," he says. "I have heard that Arabs are now being mistreated in America. They just arrive at the airport and they are strip searched."
But he misses some things: the clubs in Salem City, N.J., the CD stores in downtown Manhattan, and the bookstores everywhere where you can read magazines for free, to name just a few. He would like to go back some day, he shrugs, "but those days seem to be over."
"Many young, upper- and upper-middle-class Arabs have been socialized to behave in Western ways," says Sherine Nasser, a sociology lecturer at AUC.
"But Egyptians are a proud people, and this Westernization has never come at the expense of being Arab - it was always secondary," she says.
Whenever the Arab or Muslim world finds itself at odds with the US and its policies, she adds, this mixed identity becomes difficult. She allows that the students at AUC or the private colleges might also be compensating for their real, or supposed, affiliations with the US, but says the rage is real. "There is some amount of self-frustration, but mainly there is deep anger," she says.
At the Fulbright Institute, in the upscale Cairo neighborhood of Garden City, where 35 years of academic exchange between American and Egyptian students and scholars was recently celebrated, no one wants to be identified by name as they consider the current climate.
"I feel very conflicted and emotional about the US now," says one Egyptian academic who spent years studying in the US. "It's like trying to stand up for a friend with whom any association is suddenly a big liability. And that friend, in return, behaves like you and your opinions don't exist."
On the banks of the Nile, the Hard Rock Cafe is empty save for a few foreign businessmen sharing a laugh at the bar.
Above their heads, squeezed in between a red Chevrolet plastered into the wall and a blue suit said to have been worn by Elton John, TV screens are tuned, not to MTV, but to Al Jazeera, the satellite TV station based in Qatar that is popular throughout the Arab world. It is showing pictures of civilians allegedly killed when coalition forces bombed the Iraqi city of Basra.
A pretty Egyptian waitress, dressed in a white short skirt and a button reading "I Love NYC" leans on a counter, tapping her fingers mindlessly to a Janet Jackson song, watching.