Ahmed Ibrahim has always dreamed about living in the United States. He thinks America provides a good model for Egypt. "I'd like us to have that kind of freedom, my sons to have that kind of freedom,'' he says. Yet, over the past year, he's come to see the US as an enemy of democracy in his region, a country that plays by a different set of rules at home than it does abroad.
"Now that I look back, we can see that the plan to control us has been there all along. I just didn't recognize it before,'' says Mr. Ibrahim, a prosperous businessman in his mid-30s. "The US supported the Shah of Iran, then dropped him. The same thing with Saddam. Now they say they're bringing democracy to Iraq, but it's just getting worse and worse. They're just shuffling the Arabs around like pieces on a gameboard."
He isn't alone. A June poll by Zogby International in six Arab countries showed that America's already-limited esteem in the Arab world has plummeted since the invasion of Iraq. Just two years ago, Zogby found that 76 percent of Egyptians had an unfavorable impression of the US. Today, that number is 98 percent.
Though lowest in Egypt, there are similar declines throughout the region, which analysts say will cut deeply into America's ability to pursue it's objectives here. Even though governments in the region aren't generally democratic, they still have to take into account popular opinion when forming their policies towards the US. The source of most frustration appears to be US policy towards Palestinians and the invasion of Iraq.
The declines extend beyond the Arab world's largest country to other key US allies. In Jordan, another major recipient of US aid, America's unfavorable rating jumped from 61 percent to 78 percent and in Saudi Arabia it rose from 87 percent to 94 percent.
"They say 'democracy,' but they support dictators,'' says Mohammed, a 26-year-old designer in Jordan who asked that his full name not be used. "Look at what's happening in Najaf. The US was killing Shia - the people America said it was there to liberate."
US officials have always acknowledged that the Bush administration's blueprint for the Middle East would come at a cost of short-term public support, particularly after the invasion of Iraq. But from President Bush on down, they've also expressed confidence that improvements in Iraq would slowly but surely win converts to America's position and prod other Arab nations along the road to political reform. Being liked or disliked was less important, they reasoned, than the objectives.
But now many analysts are questioning whether US objectives in the region - whether the spread of democracy or forging a peace between Arabs and key US ally Israel - are achievable when America's standing is sinking.
"As a former US diplomat, I can attest that it helps immeasurably to deal with Arab leaders at times when the US enjoys above-average esteem from the Arab public,'' says David Mack, the Vice President of the Middle East Institute in Washington. "We often ask governments to take practical steps - often without publicity but always with the risk that it will become known - that are bound to be unpopular with either key local interest groups or their general public. Even the most authoritarian regime pays attention to this factor."
The US enjoyed greater assistance from Arab governments during the first Gulf War partly because Mr. Hussein was seen as the aggressor, but also because the US standing in the region was better.
Sipping tea in an expensive cafe in central Cairo, Ibrahim would seem a model target for US plans to foster democratic transformation in the region. While it was predictable that religious leaders like Syria's Grand Mufti or thousands of protesters in largely Shiite Bahrain have denounced the recent US offensive in the shrine city of Najaf, losing the respect of men like Ibrahim could be more damaging to US interests in the long run.
A member of Egypt's tiny middle class, he isn't subject to the abuses and frustrations that leave millions of poor Arabs susceptible to the lure of extreme religious ideologies. But while he says he wants his own government to change, he's suspicious of American claims that it is seeking the same things for Egypt.
In Iraq, he sees the US effort as centered around securing oil and asserting military dominance. In his own country, he sees the Mubarak regime propped up by massive US aid. Since 1979, Egypt has received about $2.1 billion a year in US military and general economic aide.
In that period, the number of opposition members of parliament has shrunk, and the economy has stagnated. Human rights groups complain the government uses arrests and torture to silence its opponents. "America's money isn't changing Egypt - it's keeping it just the way it is,'' says Ibrahim. "That's not an accident."
Mr. Mack, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, says the Bush Administration's early decision to disengage from mediation between Palestinians and Israelis, cost the US substantial leverage in the region.
"This does not mean that the US must be loved or 'even handed' between Israel and the Arabs. It does mean that the US must at least have the reputation for trying to solve long-standing problems without doing so simply for narrow motive,'' says Mack. "In the past, the US often got credit for trying."
America's slipping standing is due to a number of factors, say analysts, from serving as a safe target for Arab frustrations at their own governments to the increasing violence in Israel, which is ahead of Egypt as the largest recipient of US government aid. But the Zogby poll indicates that anger at recent US policies accounts for the bulk of the decline. In part, that's due to the recent growth of Arab satellite news channels, which beam regional footage of Israeli and US operations to tens of millions of homes.
While most Arabs speak favorably on such topics as America's democratic and educational systems, they're virtually united in condemnation of the US invasion of Iraq. The Zogby poll found no more than 4 percent support for the war.