To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West – know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.
President Barack Hussien Obama, Inaugural Address, 20 January, 2009.
The Gaza crisis has done some damage to President Obama’s image in the Arabic-speaking world. His silence has been taken as complicity, and among Algerians there is a great deal of disappointment, despite initial good will and interest in Obama (mostly as a phenomena). Newspapers refer to Zionist-American aggression, and Islamists and nationalists refer to him as a Zionist. The traditional Algerian pessimism colors views of Obama, but even accounting for this there is a good deal of grumpiness over his conduct during the crisis. When reminded of the President’s promise to close Guantanamo or “re-engage” with the international community (the former being of special interest to some Algerians because of the presence of Algerians there), the response is a shrug and a grumble that this is only for cosmetic purposes and that the Arab regimes backed by America will continue to torture and that the rest of the anti-terror bit will remain. Photographs of Obama wearing a yarmulke at the Wailing Wall are circulating on some email lists, blogs and web-forums.
The above entreaty from Obama’s inaugural address falls flat with many Algerians, who see it as patronizing and insincere. The ghosts of the Bush years remain, making some reluctant to start fresh (but who is?). Still, though, there are others who still find him a fascinating spectacle, young, fit, and out of the social mainstream. Some see the remark about those “who seek to sow conflict” as a reference to Israel; Others, perhaps projecting the directness found in Algerian rhetoric and conversation onto Obama, believe it is a reference to Muslims, not America’s allies. But this is about where the upbeat seems to drop. Many young Algerians are as demoralized as ever, having watched a geriatric president force himself upon the nation a third time with little resistance from opposition parties and even less public debate. Algeria’s 2009 elections will probably look much like the 1999 election, which brought the sitting president to power under murky circumstances at the polls and with opposition parties either bullied out or boycotting. An Algerian university student wrote me that “Algerians who dream of their own Obama are dreaming of a false afterlife”. The Gaza crisis raised more discussion about Obama than any of his campaign promises or his political rise: His silence has defined him for many Algerians. Where perceptions go from there will depend on how he handles the aftermath in tangible terms, not rhetoric or good will.