A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, June 1, 2009

Obama is Coming: Round Up the Usual Suspects

Sorry, impossible to avoid thinking of Casablanca when reading this AFP dispatch about the preparations in Cairo for the Obama visit:

Egypt has set up a vast security plan for US President Barack Obama's visit to Cairo this week, posting police on every corner of his route and rounding up hundreds of students for questioning.

"It's a massive security operation, the biggest we have seen yet," a security official said ahead of Obama's much-anticipated visit on Thursday to make a speech to the world's 1.5 billion Muslims.

Yes, if he's going to be speaking at a university, you'd better round up those students beforehand.

Actually the story emphasizes that the students arrested appear to be foreign students at al-Azhar, who might potentially be Islamists I suppose. But overreaction by security forces is hardly news in Egypt, and is one of the more awkward aspects of the choice of venues.

The whole question of the choice of Egypt has been much debated in the Arab media and in Egyptian opposition circles. While there is no denying that Egypt is the most populous Arab country and a critical ally of the United States, and that few other Arab countries would necessarily be a better choice, there is still a potential for embarrassment if the regime's security measures are too heavy-handed. Even if President Obama seeks to distance himself from the regime (and speaking at the national university is a good choice in that respect), an overly obtrusive security presence could remind the world (and Egyptians) of certain unpleasant aspects of the state. (Al-Azhar, which I favored as a venue, is officially co-hosting with Cairo University, though the speech will be on the Cairo U. campus in Giza).

One reason so many summits in Egypt are held not in Cairo but in Sharm al-Sheikh is that the security forces find it easier to seal off Sharm al-Sheikh and make sure no unwanted rabble (that is, ordinary citizens) can get in. When Gamal Abdel Nasser died in 1970, his funeral brought hundreds of thousands into the streets. When Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981, his funeral was held in a closed military zone, attended by a galaxy of world leaders but only a select number of his fellow countrymen. Husni Mubarak has avoided such embarrassments by deciding to live forever, of course, but there are still moments when large crowds might be predicted, and that's when the national security state gets nervous.

Let's hope that the security is good and sound, but not so obtrusive as to make it appear that the President is completely isolated from the Egyptians who are part of his intended audience.

1 comment:

David Mack said...

Another good reason for the choice of Cairo University is that it has the best American politics program I know of in the Arab world. It is run by Professor Mohamed Kamal, a SAIS PhD and for several months after he got the doctorate an MEI Resident Scholar. He regularly sends groups of his students to Washington for an end of course exercise, which I think is funded by the State Department, one of State's more enlightened exchange programs. When I have met with them at MEI, I have been very impressed by the depth of their knowledge of the American political system, including the committee system in the Congress and the perspectives of various Members of that branch. I think that Mohamed may now be a rising star in the NDP. At least, I have seen references to someone with that name. Obama can expect some very well informed questions when he meets with the Cairo U students.