The U.S. election was not merely a local affair as the world awaited its outcome with great intensity. I had never been interested in the U.S. presidential election until this year and the reason for my interest is Barack Obama. My feelings are not influenced by his African roots or his middle name (Hussein), as I do not form my opinions on the basis of anyone’s religion, whatever it may be. Even in the United States, those who pointed to Obama’s roots or religion met with disapproval. Most notable was the position taken by Colin Powell—a high profile figure in the Republican Party—who correctly asked “so what if Obama were a Muslim?” underlining that the nature of the question ran contrary to the spirit of the United States. He then announced his support for Obama despite his party affiliation.
I admit that I belong to a generation that grew up with a tradition of hostility toward the United States and anything it offers on the political and sometimes the cultural levels. In the 1950s we used to criticize U.S.-funded cultural institutions such as the Franklin Publishing Institute and al-Karnack Publishing House, before realizing their significant contribution to the translation of important works. For example, the Franklin Institute published the only book available in Arabic by the brilliant French architect Le Corbusier, and al-Karnak published some of the best translations of short stories, which still adorn my personal library.
Although we criticized publication projects with an American bias, we never took a similar stand against Soviet-sponsored publications. Our position was influenced by the echoes from the Cold War, which reached us through the clash between the capitalist and socialist camps. It took me many years to realize that human civilization from all corners of the world is essential for mankind and its existence. It also took me time to realize that the crucial factors influencing my judgment are my life experiences and the characteristics of the milieu to which I belong and that I should not prematurely reject or embrace preconceived positions.
The current U.S. election opened our eyes to the merits of American democracy in particular and those of Western democracy in general. What I have come to realize—thanks to modern information technology—is that the only perfect political form available for humanity is democracy, as known by the West for centuries. All talk about specific oriental or southern democracy or democracy as defined by a religion is nothing but an excuse to bolster the incumbent repressive regimes, whose rulers refuse any change and do not allow any transparency. Our Arab world is the most miserable example in this regard.
I observe Obama’s rise to power with amazement. He is a young man of a humble origins and African roots who was given a chance to graduate from Harvard Law School, one of the most selective and distinguished schools, before ascending to the position of the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, and being elected as commander in chief of the greatest power in the world. There is no doubt that it is this environment that nourishes an individual’s potential that allowed the United States to attain its leading place among nations. If I had had a vote, I would have given it to Obama, with an enthusiasm I share with multitudes across Europe and around the world who understand the significance of such a man’s arrival to the White House. The election of Obama is an important moment in human history because Obama’s ancestors were slaves, most of whom died during the Middle Passage. This human dimension of his triumph is very important to me regardless of the details of his election program. Equally admirable is the uncompromised transparency of an election process that holds candidates accountable for their spending and allows the press to scrutinize the wardrobe of the Republican candidate’s running mate and her expenses.
We notice that although the Republican Party, with its representative in the White House, had been in power for the last eight years, it faced a resounding defeat in the 2008 election. President Bush’s disastrous decisions, especially in foreign policy, have hurt the United States to the point where even the Republican candidate tried to distance himself from the president. On the other hand, former presidents such as Clinton and Carter were supportive of Obama and were assets to his campaign. Looking at the democratic process in the United States intensifies my feeling that here we live on a different planet and drives me to despair and a sense of futility. Obama’s rise to power is an extraordinary achievement in human history.
Gamal Al-Ghitany, Chief Editor of the Cairo-based Akhbar al-Adab weekly newspaper, Egypt.
About the Middle East Program
The Carnegie Middle East Program combines in-depth local knowledge with incisive comparative analysis to examine economic, sociopolitical, and strategic interests in the Arab world. Through detailed country studies and the exploration of key crosscutting themes, the Carnegie Middle East Program, in coordination with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, provides analysis and recommendations in both English and Arabic that are deeply informed by knowledge and views from the region. The program has special expertise in political reform and Islamist participation in pluralistic politics.