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Jewish World Review
Nov. 4, 2008
/ 6 Mar-Cheshvan 5769
A surprise for Obama in the Middle East
What the Arab street really believes and why
AMMAN, Jordan By now you can picture the Arab world in a frenzy of excitement over the elections in the United States. I certainly expected that when I landed here. After all, one of the candidates, Barack Obama, presents a sharp departure from traditional American presidents. He has a name that you can actually write in Arabic without pondering the correct spelling. One could hardly imagine anything but breathless anticipation and a strong dose of optimism at the prospect of Obama, the candidate with Muslim roots, moving into the White House.
Imagine my surprise, then, when the first person I asked about the U.S. election told me he thinks Obama is not experienced enough and believes John McCain would make a better president. I could scarcely believe my ears. He quickly read the astonishment on my face and pleaded with me not to reveal his name. Apparently, the views of this well-educated middle-class man are in the minority. The favorite here to become the next American president is definitely Obama, not McCain. And yet, the pro-Obama enthusiasm I thought I'd find in the Arab Middle East is not exactly bubbling over.
After that first conversation, I imagined that even if the candidate preference was not unanimous, at least interest in the American election must be sky high. In every other region where I have traveled the local papers featured frequent and prominent pictures of the candidates with extensive articles on the campaign. Europe, for one, is buzzing with anticipation. With a few days until the polls open in the United States, surely, the Jordanian papers would be no different.
Wrong again. The papers here always carry pictures of the monarch, King Abdullah, doing his work for the people. The U.S. candidates are nowhere to be seen on the front pages of local Arabic-language newspapers. Pictures from the campaign trail appear in the English-language press, usually buried in the back pages.
I thought my impressions might be unusual, perhaps limited to one country, but a new opinion poll in the Muslim world confirms my experience. A Gallup survey of six Muslim countries found support for Obama is stronger than for McCain, but rather underwhelming. In fact, the poll showed a strikingly low level of interest in the American election.
In Pakistan, an astonishing 90 percent said they don't know who they prefer, or refused to answer. The rest were divided equally between the two candidates, with support at a pathetic 5 percent for each. Obama's highest support came in Saudi Arabia, at a not-quite-resounding 50 percent. Only 33 percent of Palestinians and 32 percent of Kuwaitis said they prefer Obama, but that was three times more than support McCain. Ironically, Obama fares better with Jews in the United States than with Muslims in this region. A recent Gallup poll showed 75 percent of American Jews plan to vote for Obama.
It may also stem from the undercurrent of mistrust in the Arab world, which ascribes incalculable and sinister powers to Jews. Conspiratorial suggestions that the Jews will choose and control the next American president have been rife in the Arab media.
Jordanians with whom I have spoken are following the American elections, and almost all favor Obama. Still, among his supporters few hold great illusions that he will bring a great deal of change to this region - and this is the good news for Obama. They expect whoever is elected will be looking out for the interests of the United States. People here know about the economic crisis, and they believe that the next U.S. president will focus on that, rather than on the problems of the Middle East.
The initial wave of euphoria that greeted Obama's candidacy in this region has given way to a tradition of cynicism about what happens in the West, particularly in the United States. The good news for Obama is that in the Arab world he will not face the trap of excessively high expectations. The bad news is that an Obama election may not automatically repair damaged attitudes, as so many had predicted.
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JWR contributor Frida Ghitis heads International Insights, Inc. an international consulting firm. She is also the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Previously, she spent more than 15 years at CNN as a correspondent, producer and unit manager. She has worked in more than 50 countries, traveling to places as varied as Tibet, Iraq, Burma, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Haiti, Cuba, Somalia, Colombia, Nepal and many others.
© 2008, Frida Ghitis