Anti-American Sentiment Felt in the Streets of Cairo

September 7, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Tens of thousands of Syrians have fled to Egypt, a country dealing with its own deteriorating situation. Margaret Warner talks to Hari Sreenivasan from Cairo about Egypt’s opposition to military action in Syria and the strong anti-American sentiment felt in the streets of Cairo.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Tens of thousands of Syrians have also fled to Egypt. For more about that and for the latest diplomatic maneuvering in the Arab world, we’re joined now from Cairo by The NewsHour’s Chief Foreign Correspondent Margaret Warner.

How many Syrians have taken refuge in Egypt and are they being welcomed there?

MARGARET WARNER: Hari, there are more than 100,000 Syrian refugees here. Now in a country of more than 80 million, that doesn’t sound like much. But they’re mostly concentrated in the cities, here in Cairo and Alexandria, and they’re not being terribly welcomed. I’ve heard a lot of complaints from Egyptians saying you see them on every corner begging.

Since the military ousted President Morsi July 3, police and military have been rounding up Syrian men and boys, putting them in detention essentially accusing them of being Morsi supporters or Muslim Brotherhood supporters and deporting some of them. And there are reports that some of the Syrian refugees feel so unwelcomed and threatened that they’re paying smugglers to try to get them into Europe.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Let’s talk about a bigger picture. It was about four years ago, June 2009, President Obama comes to the city that you’re standing in now, tries to reset relations in the Middle East with that very big speech, the new beginning. With the reporting you’ve done over the past few days on this trip, what are you hearing about how much support Arab governments are willing to give the United States on a possible strike in Syria?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, one thing’s for sure, Hari, there will not be a unified Arab support for a strike here as there was, vis-à-vis, Libya. You had the Arab League Meeting here earlier this week. Though the members did endorse the idea, the accusation that Bashar al Assad was behind that August 21st chemical weapons attack, they refused to endorse the military strike. And at the G-20 meeting that just ended in St. Petersburg, only two of the Muslim countries, majority Muslim countries there, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, signed onto this statement that called for some sort of,  quote enforcement of the prohibition against chemical weapons used.

Secretary Kerry discussed in his testimony this week that there might be some financial support from Arab countries for such an operation. But so far, nothing has been at least materialized publicly about that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And what about the Egyptian streets, so to speak? I know there are still people out because the curfews have been eased. But what do they say about possibly a military strike by the United States? Do they support it?

MARGARET WARNER: I have talked to dozens of Egyptians in this past week. I have not met one, not one, that supports a strike against Syria, despite their compassion for people who were gassed in the chemical weapons attack.

They talk about Iraq, that fact the U.S. intelligence is faulty. And the fact that Iraq has descended back into sectarian strife and is exporting jihadi terrorists to Syria and some they fear to Egypt.

The other thing, Hari, is that this is exacerbated here by the strongest strain of Anti-Americanism I have ever felt. The pro-military ouster of Morsi Camp feels strongly that we, that is the Obama administration, coddled President Morsi as he became more and more autocratic, Morsi supporters, Muslim Brotherhood supporters went to a rally and angrily say to me, ‘Why won’t your president call what happened a coup?’

It’s coming from both sides. And that has definitely made itself felt on us. We’ve been thrown out of restaurants. We’ve had people refuse to be interviewed because we’re  Americans. We’ve had our local producer called a traitor to Egypt for working with us. So there is not much of a feeling of connection right between average Egyptians and really anything Americans do.

HARI SREENIVASAN: While the world’s been focused on Syria, the situation in Egypt seems to be deteriorating.

MARGARET WARNER: It is deteriorating in the sense that this is becoming a very divided society. When we were just first during the revolution 2 1/2 years ago, seculars and Islamists alike were united in their excitement at ousting a dictator. And even later that year, at the end of the year when there was great unhappiness with military rule,  but still those two camps were united. Now you have deep polarization between the two– each side branding the other as either as anti-democratic power grabbers or as terrorists.

And one woman said to me on the street yesterday, it’s so sad, ‘We don’t even talk to each other anymore.’ She said, ‘if you’re in the other group, I can’t hear you.’ So this is — who knows where it is going? This new government may be able to bring about some sort of a conciliation and get a civilian democracy back here. But for now, I would say it’s very up in the air.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Margaret Warner, Chief Foreign Correspondent for the PBS NewsHour reporting for us from Cairo, thanks so much.

MARGARET WARNER: My pleasure, Hari.