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April 6, 2007
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Transcript - April 6, 2007

BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW. Let me tell you a story about a national resource squandered. No, nobody drained the strategic petroleum reserve overnight or left the back door open at Fort Knox. It's about the goodwill many people overseas felt toward the United States after the attacks of 9/11. In many parts of the world, that goodwill is now very hard to find.

This turnabout is on especially vivid display in one of America's most important allies in the Middle East, Egypt. This strategically crucial country has been making headlines in recent days as its moves toward democratic reform have come undone at the same time the U.S. has been distracted by Iraq.

But while many Egyptians may not be happy with their government, they are increasingly angry at ours...and that is an issue of security for you and me, even if we never plan to take a tour of the pyramids.

Now's Mona Iskander has our report.

ISKANDER: Cairo. 2007. This teeming city of 15 million is the largest in the Middle East and commonly considered the cultural and political center of the Arab world. It is a place I know well.

I am Egyptian-American. Born in Cairo, raised in the U.S. And I've been returning here every year.

I came to Egypt to try to understand a new trend over the past few years: young people, educated and middle class, who know all about the West but are turning toward traditional Islamic values. It's part of a bigger question—why has America lost its credibility in the Middle East? And what can be done to gain it back?

Meet 21-year-old Shaimaa El-Komy. She could be considered the new face of Egypt: modern, career-minded, and a devout Muslim.

EL-KOMY: I'm Egyptian girl. Just so you know I like studying so much. I'm making my masters now in European/Mediterranean Studies. I love economics. I love political science.

ISKANDER: Shimaa brought us to the colossal City Stars Mall, one of her favorite hangouts.

In many ways, Shaimaa is like young women everywhere.

ISKANDER: Would you say shopping is one of your hobbies?

EL-KOMY: Sure but you know I begin to realize that I need a doctor.

ISKANDER: The mall was full of American stores: shops, cafes, and fast food franchises. "Rocky" and "Ghost Rider" were playing at the movie theater. But Shimaa refuses to buy anything American. It's her way of protesting the war in Iraq.

EL-KOMY: The American government can feel the hatred. We are making—we are saying that, "Stop it." We s—we are—we want to say, "No," for the war, "No," for killing the Muslim people, you know.

ISKANDER: How did this happen? After all, president Hosni Mubarak has been one of America's most reliable allies in the Middle East. And the U.S. has given Egypt more than twenty-three billion dollars in aid over the past two decades, second only to Israel over the years. But all of that is irrelevant today to most Egyptians. Public opinion of the U.S. is at an all time low in the Middle East.

I came to the heart of old Cairo to hear what working class people had to say about the United States. During my three weeks in Egypt, I found not one person who supports the American presence in Iraq.

MAN ON STREET: Let people live in peace instead of this war that stops us in our tracks and keeps us from thriving.

ISKANDER: At a local café, this wood seller's impression of the U.S. made me realize how deep the misunderstandings run.

WOODSELLER: After 9/11 Americans thought that we hated them, and that we celebrated and cheered. No, we're not against the Americans, they're against us. They want to attack us. They don't like Islam.

ISKANDER: Almost every Egyptian I talked to resents the U.S. for its support of Israel over the Palestinians.

PERSON: The problem is known, isn't it? It's Israel. This is the problem in the Middle East. If you fix that it's solved.

ISKANDER: And, they point out, America is not exactly a role model.

PERSON: You crossed the line. You are now a third world country. You detain people, you eavesdrop on peoples calls. You have done things that even we don't do.

ISKANDER: Take a look at the titles on display at this famous bookstore in downtown Cairo: "The Betrayal of Bbush," "Desert Storm, the Failure of American Policy in the Middle East" and "Bush Under the Microscope"

ADIB: We are living in an era of chaos in the Middle East. What the American administration is doing is creating more chaos.

ISKANDER: Business mogul Emad Eldin Adib runs a media empire in Egypt, overseeing 1,300 employees. For eleven years, he was known as the Larry King of Egypt, hosting of one of the Arab world's most popular talk shows on current events. He says he's a big fan of America but has lost faith in its foreign policy.

ADIB: There is a book, you know, "How to Lose your Marriage in 30 Days?" Then the Bush Administration should write a book, "how to lose your allies in the Middle East in 30 months."

ISKANDER: What is it that Americans don't understand about the Middle East, about Egypt?

ADIB: They don't understand what are the areas of sensitivity. The Americans always like, you know, the quick fix. You come two or three days. They talk to the president. They talk to some of the opposition. And they turn back and they imagine that they understand the Middle East. This is superficial. You cannot make a quick fix in the Middle East.

ISKANDER: So can the U.S. repair its relationship with the Middle East? It has to start with people like Shimaa el Komy. By day, she works as a researcher for a government ministry... and by night, she's in grad school getting a degree in European studies. Shimaa drives her own car and lives at home with her parents. In her spare time she volunteers at an orphanage. Religion is a big part of her identity.

ISKANDER: I just wanna understand there's so many young women like yourself who are veiled. But a generation ago——the women weren't veiled. Why do you think that is?

EL KOMY: We are searching for, you know, a lot of meanings that there—that is now—nowadays we cannot—we cannot—find in our life. So we have to be more religious. We have to be—religious but in the same time, empowering the—the essence of life. Not religious just—sitting in the mosque or sitting in the church and just praying. No.We have to live in—live in our life in a very representative way. And at the same time, you have to care for your destiny after life. Destruction is everywhere so that's why we have to worry about what will be our destiny.

ISKANDER: Destruction and violence have been a constant for Shimaa's generation in the Middle East. It's a generation that will shape the future. In Egypt, more than half the population is under twenty-five.

Are there young people here who do support America? To find out, we headed to the American University in Cairo where I studied ten years ago. It's known as the center of American culture here. A school for the elite of Egypt and other Arab countries, classes are taught in English. You can see America's influence in the way students dress and in the clubs they join.

I took part in a class on Arab society taught by sociologist and pro-democracy advocate Saad Eddin Ibrahim.

ISKANDER: What do you feel about American policy in Egypt?

NOUR: the problem with the U.S. is that they treat a country for its oil, for its resources, but they don't think there are people dying, there are families shattered.

ISKANDER: We also heard from an American in the class.

CRAIG: the Egyptian friends that I've met here, like—like to express that they don't hate American people at all. Like they hate Bush. But they also hate Mubarak. So I mean, it's kind of the same thing.

ISKANDER: And is Egypt ready for democracy? What this student had to say stopped the class.

KHALIFA: You have to like have some control. You can't leave everything to the people, you know? And most of people here in Egypt are not educated, not well educated. So, they're not even capable of like choosing a correct President or leader, whatever.

IBRAHIM: I hope by the end of the semester you will have changed your mind. If you stay like that the country is doomed. What do you mean the people are not ready? Mubarak is not ready, but the people are ready.

ISKANDER: What's so upsetting to Ibrahim is that he has spent much of his life trying to show that Egyptians are ready for democracy. The country has been under emergency law almost continuously for the past 40 years—26 under Mubarak. The police can arrest at will and detain people without trial. Ibrahim has been one of the regime's most vocal critics.

His life is testament that speaking out against the government in Egypt is dangerous. In June of 2000, Ibrahim was arrested and his research center raided. He was charged and convicted of crimes stemming from his work to monitor government elections. Human rights groups and the U.S. government called for his release. After serving 15 months in prison, his sentence was overturned.

To this day, Ibrahim and his wife, Barbara, who is American, are undeterred.

BARBARA IBRAHIM: I feel we have to—stay we have to be an example to others that you can have the state police thrown at you, you can have a jail sentence thrown at you, you can be repeatedly re-jailed. And you can succeed.

ISKANDER: Two years ago, Ibrahim and other activists were emboldened when the U.S. made an unprecedented push for democracy in the region.

BUSH: (January 2005) "And the great and proud nation of Egypt, which showed the way toward peace in the Middle East, can now show the way toward democracy in the Middle East."

ISKANDER: Later that summer, secretary of state Condoleezza Rice echoed Bush's speech during a visit to Egypt.

RICE: (June 20, 2005) "We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people"

ISKANDER: Rice made 37 references to democracy in her speech.

Egyptians took note. And democratic activism stepped up. Protestors poured into the streets chanting Kefaya, or "Enough," to Mubarak. For the first time in history, the president did not run unopposed. The Muslim brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition group, which is officially banned, won nearly 20 per cent of the seats in parliament. It was seen as a vote of protest against Mubarak's government and interpreted by many as a victory for Islam.

Now fast forward two years to January 2007. Rice was back in Egypt but her tone was decidedly different.

RICE: (January 2007) "...the relationship with Egypt is an important strategic relationship; one that we value greatly."

ISKANDER: The word democracy never came up. And in a visit just last week, her rhetoric was so muted that advocates gave up on any hope of outside pressure.

IBRAHIM: People who had hoped that America will actually be true to its word—are disappointed. Some more than others, of course.

ISKANDER: Are you disappointed?

IBRAHIM: I am.

ISKANDER: The democracy push, Ibrahim says, was abandoned by the U.S. in the interest of stability. And, says Ibrahim, those succeeding in a more democratic Egypt—like the Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood—were not necessarily those the U.S. wanted to succeed.

IBRAHIM: Seeing that somehow the region did not behave the way that George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice had anticipated must be also disappointing to them and making them recalculate and probably—our dictators in Tunisia and Egypt and Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East now must be just—laughing their hearts. Saying, "Ah, see—see, we told you, you are pushing too fast."

ISKANDER: Now it's back to business as usual for Mubarak's regime. In the past two years, there has been a resurgence of government repression. One of Egypt's most prominent opposition politicians, Ayman Nour, that's him in the glasses, has been in jail since running against Mubarak in 2005. There's been a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood: hundreds have been arrested since the group's gains in the elections. And just last week, constitutional amendments passed that human rights group have called a huge setback for civil liberties.

BARBARA IBRAHIM: Even though the state appears very strong, in fact it's not. This is a weak state, it's a defensive moment through them. And I think we're at the end of an era, and the beginning of another one.

ISKANDER: If there is a new beginning for democracy activists, it might be found in the world of blogging. In the fight for political change in Egypt, the weapons are keyboards, cell phones and digital cameras.

ABBAS: I try to evade arrest. I sometimes where there's danger I hide my camera.

ISKANDER: 32-year-old Wael Abbas is a citizen journalist and a famous blogger in Egypt. His website gets a million hits a month and he's known for the videos he posts of police torture, something human rights groups say is routine in Egypt - an allegation the authorities deny.

ABBAS: I'm trying to enlighten people. I'm trying to expose corruption, ex—expose torture.

ISKANDER: Last November, Abbas posted this video, taken with a cell phone camera, of a bus driver allegedly being sexually assaulted by police.

The footage shocked the Egyptian public and prompted a mainstream Egyptian paper to launch an investigation. Now two of the policemen in the video are awaiting trial.

But that's not an isolated case. Our cameraman pulled out his cell phone to show us another torture video that's been circulating in Egypt.

This video, also originally posted on Abbas's site, has led to an official investigation as well.

Wael Abbas says his mission is to make Egyptians aware of their rights

ABBAS: If I was successful in—in telling the Egyptian people, "It's—it's not the right of the police to hit you on the back of the head," and—and people are convinced with that, th—then I am successful and—and doing something.

ISKANDER: So do you feel like it's dangerous to be a blogger?

ABBAS: In Egypt, yes.

ISKANDER: How dangerous? Well last month, a blogger was sentenced to four years in jail for insulting president Mubarak and Islam. It made international headlines and sparked protests around the world. He is the first blogger in Egypt to be tried and convicted for his writings. That sent a chill through the blogging community.

ISKANDER: So aren't you in the least bit afraid of the repercussions?

ABBAS: Of course. Of course. I—I feel threatened all the time.

ISKANDER: Political bloggers have chosen to take on the government. And how do regular citizens deal with the topic of politics?

Meet Ruqayya Abdel Basseer, a 44-year-old housekeeper and mother of three. She lives in the working class neighborhood of Ain Shams. While she was eager to talk with us, her neighbors were nervous that a camera might get them in trouble with the police.

ISKANDER: He wants you to stop the camera...

ISKANDER: Inside Ruqayya's tiny two-bedroom apartment, her children watch "Sesame Street" in Arabic. Ruqaya's favorite news channel is al Jazeera, and like everyone we met, she wants to tell America to stop the war in Iraq.

ISKANDER: You've never been to America but what do you think it's like?

BASSEER: From what I see on TV, Life in America seems very easy. I can't believe that there is as much poverty in America as there is here. I can't believe it.

ISKANDER: But when we asked about domestic politics, she became noticeably uncomfortable.

ISKANDER: Do you feel that people can speak freely here about the government? Criticize it?

BASSEER: You mean to say that things are not good, to say our opinions freely? I don't think so. Of course there will be a problem.

ISKANDER: And even Shimaa, who is getting a master's degree in politics, had one caveat before we came to her home: no talk of the government. But she was eager to talk about something else: how Islam is central to her life.

It turns out that Shimaa is a rebel. Five years ago, at age 16, she made the lifetime committment to wear a veil. It was against her parents' advice. She showed me pictures of herself without the veil but my cameraman was not allowed to see.

Shimaa's mother, Karima only began wearing her veil at age at the age of fifty. When she was Shimaa's age, it wasn't the norm.

MR. EL-KOMY: My mother, for example, my mother, for example, did not—she died and she did not—wear this—veil—veil. My grandmother also, as well, don't wear because it—this culture came to Egypt last 15 years. I am—I am not—against this wearing.

EL-KOMY: You seem to be against—you're wear—

MR. EL-KOMY: No, no, I am not against. But this is new.

ISKANDER: You—told me—last week that you consider yourself a feminist.

EL-KOMY:Yes.

ISKANDER: But—many people in the west would say by wearing the veil that's against feminism.

EL-KOMY: Why?

ISKANDER: Because they think that you're covering yourself up. And that you're not free.

EL-KOMY: This is no. Feminists is to respect—the feminist in the way—I—I'm calling myself a feminist is that the woman should respect—her mind. Should respect herself. Should work. Should develop. Should—should share in the community. So—when—when I'm wearing such a veil I'm saying that, please, respect me for who I am. Not for my hairstyle. Not for wearing a very short skirt. Not for this. Just respect me for who I am.

ISKANDER: And respect me for having a career, Shimaa says. She looks up to her mother, who is an engineer.

KARIMA: A woman working in Egypt is very, very necessary.

ISKANDER: It was in Shimaa's bedroom that I saw how the modern and the traditional pulse through the lives of young Egyptians. In one corner there's a computer hooked up to the Internet.

EL-KOMY: This is Google. I like Google so much.

ISKANDER: And next to Shimaa's bed there's a Koran. Inside, she says she finds the truth that guides her life.

EL-KOMY: you listen to a certain verse that's as if God is talking to you.

BRANCACCIO: And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. See you next week.



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