On the eve of the US elections, the Arab world is also focusing on developments across the Atlantic. The views within the Arab world are well known, firm, and clear: The overwhelming majority aspires for the victory of Democratic candidate Barack Obama. Random online polls attest to this, the talkbackers declare this openly, and official spokespeople stress this explicitly.
One of them is Syria’s Information Minister Mohsen Bilal. In an interview with official Syrian television last week, Bilal did not hide his country’s clear stance. “After November 4th, we hope to see a change in the US. We hope to see the new America, the different America,” he said. The interviewer asked which candidate he was referring to, and Bilal responded: “The candidate that will bring change.” His intention was clear.
If anyone had any doubts, it would be enough to see the coverage of the two candidates by Syria’s media. Obama’s lead in the polls is prominently presented, alongside reports of McCain’s failures. This is the essence of the message. The Arab Middle East, and this is particularly true in respect to Mideastern leaders, aspires for an Obama victory.
The true fear of those regimes during the tenure of outgoing President George W. Bush stemmed from that very same word: Change – yet in a different context. These leaders heard President Bush formulating and promoting a vigorous foreign policy in the wake of September 11th. The aim of this neo-conservative policy was to reorder the Middle East and bring Western-style democracy to it, as this was seen as the only way to resolve the root of all problems.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq proved to Arab leaders that the White House is determined to carry out this policy, even by force. Saddam Hussein’s toppling within a few days was truly stunning. Arab leaders feared this would be the faith of the next Arab president who dares challenge America’s plans. Presidents and kings started to sweat.
Ever since then, the American army became entangled in the Iraqi quagmire, the threats of striking Iran were replaced (for the time being) by sanctions and diplomacy, and Bush convened the Annapolis Conference and moderated his tone – yet the fears persisted. John McCain is perceived as someone who may continue Bush’s policy, and possibly even boost it.
Arab leaders were of course revolted by the idea that an external element will teach them about democracy while using force, thereby boosting all radical movements – just as happened in the Palestinian Authority with Hamas. Egypt was quick to use this example and challenge the Americans on several occasions: Do you want a new and democratic Middle East? This is what you’ll get in our place. This, in essence, is the main reason for the Arab leaders’ reservations vis-à-vis McCain and support for Obama.
‘All of them are enemies of Islam’
However, not everyone backs Obama, even when it comes to opinion pieces. Columnist Saad Bin Tafla did not hide these sentiments in an article published by the London-based al-Sharq al-Awsat. He wrote that McCain is better for the Arabs than Obama for several reasons: McCain is older, and would be interested in leaving his mark on history in his first term in office, by ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; Obama, who is only in his 40s, will mostly be concerned with being reelected; this may even prompt him to favor Israel, in order to dismiss reports about his Islamic roots and woo the Jewish vote en route to reelection.
However, these articles are rare, and Obama enjoys broad support for various reasons. First, the Arab world feels that the situation cannot get any worse, and that any president would be better than Bush, who led a crusade against the Arab Mideast. Curiously enough, similar sentiments surfaced eight years ago as well. Back then, the sense was that no president can be more sympathetic to Israel than Bill Clinton, and therefore it would be better to see the isolationist George W. Bush elected. Does anyone even remember this now?
Another reason for the support for Obama is sociological-emotional: Barak Hussein Obama, who cannot hide his skin color and origins, is perceived as someone who may be able to understand the distress faced by the Arab world and African nations, both in humane and cultural terms. He is perceived as someone who “saw the Third World” and would therefore be better than “General McCain,” who is perceived as a military leader and Bush’s successor.
However, there is also a fairly large camp of anxious Arabs, who do not believe the post-Bush America, and fear that all the vague declarations made during the elections campaign do not reflect what’s in store. This camp believes that there is no significant difference between Obama and McCain, and that no genuine change is expected, at least in respect to America’s foreign policy vis-à-vis the Middle East. “All of them are enemies of the Arabs and Islam,” countless talkbackers write.
One way or another, nobody will remain indifferent to Tuesday’s elections. The major satellite channels have already embarked on special broadcasts, websites and the press have been extensively covering the campaign for a while now, and it appears that the excitement grows as the hours go by. Will Obama bring change? Millions of people in the Middle East cannot wait for an answer.