Interview: Mona Makram Ebeid Gives Her Perception of the United States Since the War on terrorism Began

Morning Edition: August 5, 2003

Perceptions of USA


This week we're talking with people in several countries about their changing views of the United States. We'd seen the surveys showing widespread hostility mixed with respect for the US. And we're asking a highly unscientific sample of people to tell us in more detail what they're thinking. Today we're going to Egypt, it's a critical US ally in the Middle East and one of the biggest recipients of US foreign aid.

Mona Makram Ebeid is a former deputy in the Egyptian Parliament. She now teaches political science at the American University of Cairo, and she joins us now.

Ms. MONA MAKRAM EBEID (American University of Cairo): Good morning.

INSKEEP: I would think that if any place in Cairo was sympathetic to the United States it would be the American University of Cairo.

Ms. EBEID: Well, you shouldn't be too sure about that because the first demonstrations, in fact, against the Iraqi War came out from the American University in Cairo and the previous one was for, you know, the Intifadah, the uprising in Palestine and the way Mr. Sharon was dealing with the Palestinians. So until lately the American University was apolitical, I would say, but the events since 9/11 and in Palestine triggered a lot of nationalistic feelings among the students even though they are of the American University. In fact, many members of the faculty have joined the anti-war demonstrations and many of them were Americans.

INSKEEP: This is a university as the name would imply that was founded with American help.

Ms. EBEID: It was a former missionary school and then developed into university and today it's one of the most prestigious universities in Cairo.

INSKEEP: I would think just because of the name that the students who would come there would be people who have some interest in or affinity toward the United States.

Ms. EBEID: Absolutely. That is very correct but it doesn't mean that because they have an interest in the United States or they have an affinity with the American way of life that they're not very critical of United States' foreign policy towards the Arab world.

INSKEEP: Setting international conflicts, international politics aside for a moment, I would imagine that there are a lot of smaller and more personal ways that you or your students or your fellow professors at the American University in Cairo relate to the United States or have some kind of contact with the United States.

Ms. EBEID: There is, of course, a lot of contact and we have American professors who come as visiting fellows or as visiting professors. But I will tell you about one of the growing frustrations today among Egyptian students are those who are not given visas. And so this has caused a lot of frustration among the students. Sad feelings, let's say.

INSKEEP: Is it harder for an Egyptian to get a visa to the United States then it was a couple years ago?

Ms. EBEID: Of course it is. First of all it takes much longer, it takes about three months. Particularly for young people, it's almost impossible to get a visa.

INSKEEP: And we should mention, I suppose if we went now to the State Department and asked them about the visa requirements they might phrase things differently. But what you're telling me is the Egyptian perception of how the United States is treating them; they're assuming that Egyptians are terrorists, basically.

Ms. EBEID: Right. I mean, the students think that not allowing visas to students is like cutting your nose to spite your face because on the one hand the US wants to reach out to the people and on the other they have all these policy restrictions.

INSKEEP: What about American culture? Is that an aggravating factor at all as American culture spreads around the world and in Cairo?

Ms. EBEID: Well, it wasn't. Until September 11 everybody was very happy to wear the T-shirts, to go to McDonald's, to Kentucky Fried Chicken, to try to imitate everything that happens in America. To even try to, you know, introduce English-American slang in the Arabic language and so on. Everybody's eyes were geared towards sending their children to the United States to finish their studies. Go there. Now it is much less attractive and people feel anxious at the way they could be treated. They hear what happens to many of their colleagues or members of their family who are of Muslim origin and who don't feel quite at ease. Because of their ethnic origin they're being treated differently.

INSKEEP: How does the United States look in the newspapers these days?

Ms. EBEID: You know, US credibility as a promoter of democracy is at its lowest. And that comes from Washington's treatment of the prisoners of war in Guantanamo Bay, because of the anti-terrorism laws that infringe on civil rights. We've been friends and allies, we Egyptians, we Egypt, for 25 years. But the perception here now is that in the US they say we are allies but in reality they see us more as Muslims and Arabs first.

INSKEEP: It would be tempting for an American to say that however badly some prisoners might be treated at Guantanamo Bay, it might be better then they would be treated in an Egyptian prison at the moment.

Ms. EBEID: Yeah, but you know, Egypt has never raised--has never been known to be the beacon of liberty or the beacon of freedom as America was. And that's why America had this admiration of most of the world for what it stood for, the principles on which it was built. You know, I'm a Harvard graduate, and I know much about the Federalist Papers. I've had so much admiration for all that.

Before 9/11 people had an extremely high esteem for the United States, respect for what they stood for, for the opportunity they gave you. But after 9/11 all this has changed, I must tell you. It has changed tremendously. Now you have very confused feelings towards the United States, not necessarily hostility, but resentment, growing frustration. And don't forget, I mean the unilateral, the unflinching support, let's say, to Israel has a lot to do with it.

INSKEEP: Egypt is one of the largest recipients of foreign aid from the United States: economic assistance, military assistance and so forth. In your experience does that tend to make people grateful to the United States or resentful toward the United States?

Ms. EBEID: I would say a mixture. Obviously people are grateful because US assistance has helped in many development programs, has helped particularly in the education sector which I think there is a big deficit in. The criticism is really towards your own government, that you're so dependent and that you should become more independent by encouraging the more productive aspects instead of just imitating a consumerist society which you can't really afford in the Egyptian context.

INSKEEP: Mona Makram Ebeid is a former deputy in the Egyptian parliament. She now teaches political science at the American University in Cairo. Thanks very much.

Ms. EBEID: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Tomorrow we'll hear about the United States as it looks to a German editor and to a French Hotel manager. You can get more information about how America looks to the rest of the world by going to our Web site at

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