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Obama's Cairo Trip: The Unreported Details in Context

Posted: 06/09/09 12:30 PM ET

President Obama had a lot to do in his eight hours in Egypt. I am not talking about his historic speech to the Muslim world but about his itinerary in the city. Going from Cairo International Airport to the Qubba Palace followed by a visit to the Sultan Hassan Mosque at the foot of the Citadel before heading to Cairo University to deliver his speech, and to have enough time to spare for a tourist visit to the Giza Pyramids on the far western edge of the city -- all before returning to Cairo airport in eight hours -- is a no less than a Herculean task.

But of course this is the president of the United States and with the necessary preparations and security precautions, which went surprisingly smoothly, the busy itinerary was completed on time. Highways were cleared, streets were swept and ornamental flowerpots and street furniture were put in place. Frustrated opposition activists were quick to note that Obama's visit "catered to leaders not people." They somehow expected the American president to squash the Egyptian state's iron fist with another.

To use Obama's way of resolving conflict, I understand both sides of this tension: on the one hand, the Egyptian State, and rightly so, wanted to make sure the American president's short stay is free of any unplanned events, say an assassination attempt. On the other hand, activists hoped for more direct engagement from the American president in criticizing Mubarak's handling of what he understands to be "democracy" -- which has included torture, unwarranted arrests and imprisonments, corruption and favoritism, besides the fact that no real elections have been held in the country since he took office in 1981.

But criticizing Mubarak and making an example of him in front of the world was not the intention of Obama's visit, and many activists in the blogosphere misdirected their frustration at the American president. I will not do the same. Instead, I will use the opportunity of Obama's visit to highlight some of the causes of frustration. This is not a reflection of Obama and his policies but it has everything to do with local Egyptian politics. Since Cairo was for 55 minutes, the duration of Obama's speech, the focus of the world, local Egyptian politics should be put in context.

So let me use the city and the president's itinerary as a way to highlight but a few issues Egyptians deal with on a daily basis that are also at the core of Obama's hope for a better relationship between America and Muslims at large. Much of what I have to say is connected to Obama's final point about development and more generally his discussion of human rights.

Cairo International Airport still feels like that of a provincial city. For years I have been frustrated at Terminal Two's bathroom-like appearance with small white tiles on every surface. Terminal One, the old home of Egypt Air, has had a facelift and feels like visiting an airport from the time when air travel was a luxury. Well, in this country it still is. Most Egyptians just dream of vacationing on the crowded beaches in Alexandria, let alone of boarding an airplane. Air travel is only accessible to tourists and expats, Egyptian elites and Egyptians living abroad and the occasional flight-load of lower-class Egyptian men who have sold all they own or took out a loan to buy a ticket to work in the Persian Gulf. Recently Egypt Air joined the Star Alliance, had a facelift and is set to open a new terminal at the airport to present a more modern face to Egypt. This is all very cosmetic change and only caters to a few. There is still a fundamental change that the state has failed to administer: order. Even today going through airport passport security is as chaotic as haggling for a trinket at the Khan El Khalili Bazaars. And officers stamping your passport, probably smoking a cigarette while doing so, is probably underpaid and got his job because he knows someone who knows someone.

Qubba Palace is said to be the largest in Egypt. I wouldn't know, we are not allowed to visit. Unlike the White House, such palaces that are used by the presidency are usually off-limits with few exception such as the museum at Abdeen Palace. Both Abdeen and Qubba are royal palaces built by European architects hired by Egypt's dynasty who looked to Europe for inspiration. The interiors, from what I see in picture books, are a lavish mixture of architectural styles that certainly contributed to the bankruptcy of the country at multiple points in its history. These buildings are from a time when downtown Cairo and other districts were built as a "Paris along the Nile." After the revolution of 1952 such palaces became presidential quarters and some parts of them were opened to the public -- but not for long. This is indeed a wonderful residence fit for a king or a president that lives like a king. But, it is a fact difficult to swallow when the majority of Egyptians ruled by this king-like president live under the poverty line in unplanned, unhygienic housing probably with no sewage or running water, far from the palace's golden faucets. Perhaps more people would have listened to Obama's speech or even perhaps the speech would not have been necessary if more Muslims had proper living space with running water, air, sun, and electricity to hook up their TV or radio.

The president's route from the Palace to the Sultan Hassan Mosque went through some of Cairo's most unforgiving slums. It is in slums that various Islamic groups with varying levels of extremism have won over the population by providing basic needs such as affordable health clinics, schools and a loaf of bread. This is where development matters most, this and places like it across the Muslim world is where American-Muslim relations will be mended, not at the level of heads of state but here in the cul-de-sacs of slums.

The Sultan Hassan Mosque is known as a gem of Islamic architecture. Let me be frank, this was a great photo-op and it was one of those moments many Egyptians on the street were impressed with. "He took off his shoes!" This along with the photo-op at the Giza pyramids stuck a cord with many Egyptians who, despite difficult living conditions, are very proud to be Egyptian. This pride is rooted in the past. And it needs to be rooted in the present, and this is what I hope further emphasis on development as a US policy may bring.

Despite the fact that Egypt is the second-highest recipient of US funds, little of it makes it to the street, the everyday. And when it comes to heritage preservation, which creates a lot of jobs, transforms neighborhoods and promotes tourism, private initiatives and groups such as the Aga Khan Trust for Culture do most of the work. Visiting the mosque must have been an American choice: to visually express American appreciation of Islamic culture. But I wonder who had the idea of visiting the pyramids? Was it that clown-of-an-archaeologist Zahi Hawas in an attempt to promote himself yet again? Did he make any requests for US funds for the new Grand Egyptian Museum being built near the Pyramids and struggling to raise sufficient funding? We will never know. But we know that there were no touts annoying the president for camel rides or to buy fake papyrus (an experience every visitor to the pyramids suffers). I am sure the Egyptian security forces kept them out. Perhaps those touts would not be so persistent if they didn't have to fight in the heat of Cairo's sun everyday just to make ends meet. The Egyptian state as always offers no real solutions but only cosmetic ones.

Finally, Cairo University. The Middle East's first modern university with its grand buildings and massive dome was a wise choice to deliver the speech. The building and surrounding area received in the two weeks leading to the event a 15 million-pound facelift. Walls were painted, floors were cleaned, landscaping was done and light bulbs were changed. Does it really take an American president's visit in order for such routine improvements to be made? Of course facilities used by students and faculty were not touched.

This brings me to a quick note on education. Egypt has a long history as a place of learning as the President highlighted in his speech. Women were provided higher education here as early as the 1870s, but it was not until 1930 that a woman became a high level administrator and it was in 1933 that the first group of Egyptian women graduated with degrees equal to those given to men. The university also produced many who were exported to build and educate the Gulf region at the dawn of oil discovery. There are numerous episodes in this university's glorious past, see Cairo University and the Making of Modern Egypt by Donald Malcolm Ried. But what about the present? Currently the university's lecture halls are overcrowded and the libraries can use a dose of recent publications. Even the minister of education is not an educator. The current minister is an engineer by training and his predecessor was a pediatrician. At the core of all the issues discussed here is education: the education of lawmakers, teachers, doctors and urban planners. And a fundamental change is needed in the business of education in Egypt in order for many of Obama's hopes to become reality.

Dokkan Shehata, currently in movie theaters in Cairo, shows a sequence where a Gamal Mubarak lookalike pays truckloads of thugs on the eve of the last election to hand out meat and bread to buy votes from the hungry millions. Mubarak was elected but you cannot have true democratic elections when the majority of the population wonders if they will have food on their table (if they have a table) at the end of the day or a building to sleep in that will not collapse over them and their children. As an Egyptian-American, since I was born in 1981 I have lived through five American presidents, three with two terms -- and only one Egyptian president. Imagine if Ronald Reagan was still president. Thirty minutes after Obama left the Sultan Hassan Mosque, photographers documented the removal of the flowerpots and street ornamentation that were put in place. The city went back to normal and residents who had been advised to stay home were free to go back to life as they know it. Although President Obama's speech was well received on the Egyptian street, retracing the president's path through "the timeless city of Cairo" will quickly reveal that change will be hard to come by.