August 18, 2013
Egypt's violence is fuelling a furious backlash against the US, Britain and other western countries for supposedly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in its bloody confrontation with the military-backed government that overthrew Mohamed Morsi .
From state-controlled newspapers and private pro-government TV channels to ordinary people on the tense streets of Cairo, the message is that Egypt is facing a foreign "conspiracy" to undermine its stability.
Barack Obama is the principal target of media and popular wrath, but Britain is also singled out for backing Islamists. The state-owned newspaper al-Ahram carried a long article portraying London as a safe haven and incubator for Muslim extremists. But Turkey and Qatar – both supporters of the Brotherhood – are also targets for abuse, as is Israel.
A cartoon going viral on Egyptian Facebook pages tells the story graphically. It shows Uncle Sam, together with a man wearing the Israeli flag on his hat, consigning Egypt to a blazing cauldron – in line with two others containing the remains of Syria and Iraq. The same theme is repeated in a vivid poster attacking a US "plot" to destroy Egypt – with an obligatory star of David symbol to reference the Jewish state as well.
Foreign criticism of the military's crackdown on the Islamists, which reached a terrible peak with the storming of two Brotherhood sit-ins in Cairo leaving hundreds dead, is simply rebuffed as interference in Egypt's internal affairs.
Last week Obama took a small step to pressure the army chief, General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, by announcing the cancellation of next month's biennial US-Egyptian Bright Star military exercise. But that was widely dismissed. "Obama's statement angered people, but no one really cares," said Zaher, a Cairo driver who backs the army and says he wants only stability for his country. "It means nothing."
Calls on the US to cut its $1.5bn in annual military aid to Egypt have been dismissed by pro-government commentators. "It is phantasmagoric," said pundit Hisham Kassem, who believes the Brotherhood is a "terrorist entity".
Ironically, both sides in this deeply divided country blame outsiders, and especially the US, for pouring fuel on the fire. "The army says the Americans are supporting the Ikhwan [Brotherhood]," observed Ahmed Fadl, a young journalist watching the standoff outside the al-Fath mosque in Ramses Square on Saturday. "But the Brotherhood says the Americans are backing Sisi. Both sides use the same arguments."
Tamarrod, the organisation whose mass protests ushered in the coup against Morsi last month, is now campaigning for a rejection of US aid. It also wants to revoke the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty.
Anti-foreign feeling is translated into hostility to and suspicion of western journalists, accused by government supporters of painting the Brotherhood as "victims" – clearly at odds with the widely supported official narrative that they are "terrorists". But Hazem Kandil, an Egyptian political sociologist at Cambridge University, dismisses the notion that the government is indulging in propaganda. "Egyptians have turned from looking at the Muslim Brotherhood as a political organisation to looking at it as a gang of killers who have been holding people hostage," he said.
Not only westerners are feeling the brunt of Egyptian anger. Syrians who have fled their country's civil war have also faced hostility and abuse, as have Palestinians, who are widely associated with the Islamist movement Hamas, the Brotherhood ally, which rules the Gaza Strip.
"The xenophobia is terrible," said independent journalist Abdel Rahman Hussein. "It's the worst I have ever seen. It has its roots in Arab nationalism and it's being whipped up by the media. They are stoking the fires about a foreign plot to destroy Egypt."