When I arrived in Cairo shortly after the official release by the U.S. government of the “Bin Laden Tape,” I was surprised by the way it was received in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East: barely anyone seemed to take notice of the tape, which was much fanfared in the US and Europe as conclusive evidence of Bin Laden’s complicity in the September 11 bombings.
While the tape’s release, as well as the internal debate about whether to release it or not, continued to dominate the headlines of major U.S. newspapers and networks, its coverage by quasi-governmental and opposition newspapers in the Middle East remained low-key and muted. Such coverage included the Egyptian “Al Ahram” to the London-based “Al Hayat”, and the pan-Arab TV stations such as “Al Mustaqbal” and “Al Jazeera.” Their headlines belonged to on-going clashes in the Palestinian territories, the devaluation of the Egyptian pound, and other economic and political issues of regional importance.
During the evenings in Ramadan, the otherwise overcrowded and busy streets of Cairo were mostly empty due to the screening of the highly popular, though controversial, local soap opera, “The Family of Hagg Metwalli,” the plot of which revolved around polygamy and became the talk of the town, if not the whole region. While Bin Laden might have enjoyed a moment of celebrity shortly after the attacks and remained in the public eye due to the “terrorist mastermind” figure the U.S. portrayed of him, the action attributed to Bin Laden was generally condemned by Arabs.
The indifference that greeted the Bin Laden Tape in the Arab region highlights just how far America has left to go if it decides to continue its effort to convince Arabs of the righteousness of its “war against terrorism.” Moreover, the indifference suggests that America’s current PR strategy, led by LEAD protagonist Charlotte Beers, might be inherently flawed.
While it is understandable that the U.S. needs a clearly defined symbol for its ongoing war, by personalizing the conflict and making it about finding Bin Laden “dead or alive” (which would presumably rectify the situation), the U.S. puts itself in the risky position of losing the propaganda war in the event Bin Laden goes unfound. In fact, the US administration might have miscalculated when it assumed that any perceived anti-Americanism in the Arab world equals pro-Bin Ladenism, because everything that I witnessed in my brief stay there didn’t seem to fit that simple equation.
While most of the region appears to be ambivalent about the authenticity of the evidence against Bin Laden and his affiliates and recognize America’s right to seek retribution, any anti-American sentiments are not likely to go away until the core issues at hand are brought to the surface and debated openly among members of the U.S. administration, policymakers, and the media. Given that such sentiments were already running high before the September 11 tragedy, the guilt and eventual capture of Bin Laden in and by itself is unlikely to produce any fundamental change.
Indeed, anyone who travels to the Middle East these days and spends a few days talking to people on the street or even just following the media will realize why the tapes have failed to produce the reaction America (and its Western allies) had hoped for. To most Arabs, this conflict was never about Bin Laden anyway and certainly not about Islam versus the West. In fact, whether they believe in Bin Laden’s guilt or not, most Arabs’ criticism of the U.S. is that it lacks sensitivity to their current economic and social plight, which they believe has been exacerbated by U.S. foreign policy that condones the status quo in the region.
They feel the U.S. has avoided the roots of the problem by focusing on Bin Laden. Many Arabs point to civilian tragedies such as the ones in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Territories and to the rapidly deteriorating economic situation in Egypt, Syria, and even parts of the Gulf. They point to how these conditions have caused a tremendous amount of human suffering and humiliation among the Arab masses.
The public mind in the Arab world seems to focus