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Umm Reda, who sells figs at Cairo’s Zuwayla Gate, is unaware that the United States has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the ancient edifice’s renovation as part of an aid package that last year totaled $1.8 billion.
Umm Reda, who sells figs at Cairo’s Zuwayla Gate, is unaware that the United States has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the ancient edifice’s renovation as part of an aid package that last year totaled $1.8 billion. (Globe Staff Photo / Charles A. Radin)

Western-style democracy prove to be a tough sell

Last in a series

CAIRO -- Baradi, the coffee shop at the corner of Tahrir and Dokki streets, is typical of thousands of cafes in this largest and most moderate of Arab Muslim cities.

White-tiled walls and high ceilings lined with fans help patrons keep cool in a climate that can be sweaty even in winter. The courtliness of the clientele -- accountants and government clerks in worn dishdashe gowns and polyester suits -- also helps keep things temperate, even when the conversation amid the smoke from apple-scented waterpipes turns to President Bush's push for democracy in the Muslim world.

No one here wears the distinctive clothing and beard of Muslim fundamentalists. Voices are not raised in anger, no matter the intensity of feelings. But there is no mistaking the deep distrust and dislike patrons harbor toward the United States.

Shahat el-Morshedy, a friendly, softspoken waiter at Baradi, is typical. A genial man with facial expressions reminiscent of comedian Eddie Murphy, Morshedy has an aversion to Muslim fundamentalism and to violence. But he also has political opinions that will chill the heart of anyone who hopes the Bush push for democracy will slow the momentum of radical Islam.

''The Americans do these things in their own self-interest," Morshedy says of recent US-backed elections in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Palestinian territories. ''The elections are diversions, to divert the attention of Arab populations from what is really happening."

To American eyes it might seem that moderation and democracy are budding in much of the Islamic world. In addition to the national elections, there are hints of change in Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon. And moderate Islamists already are running Turkey and Indonesia.

But from Rabat to Bali -- in mosques, cafes, shops, and offices, among peddlers and professors visited by a Globe reporter over the past year -- the currents of opinion are much more complicated, and darker, than that.

The better educated believe that the United States is cynical about where it presses the democratic cause, making exceptions for authoritarian regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which it counts as key allies, and giving a free hand to Israel in its treatment of the Palestinians. Many people in the streets voice a much harsher view, believing quite literally that the United States is motivated by a desire to steal the region's natural resources and, in places where the military is deployed, prey upon Muslim women.

''When the Americans started the war in Iraq, they said they were after weapons of mass destruction," Morshedy says, taking a breather from dispensing coffee, tea, and lemonade to Baradi's jumble of battered tables and chairs. ''They found none. Then they said they wanted to protect the people from Saddam. . . . Look how many are dead. Then they said they wanted to spread democracy.

''How can they talk about democracy when the United States holds prisoners without trial?" he asks. ''When we see hundreds of people at Guantanamo without trial, chained like dogs, how do you think that makes us feel? These things challenge the most moderate and tolerant among us."

Morshedy has a degree in agricultural engineering and a day job in the ministry of agriculture. He waits table at night because, like many educated Egyptians, he cannot live, much less get married or buy a home, on his government salary of $34 a month. He would benefit from a more vigorous economy and would like to see Egypt become more democratic than it is after 24 years of President Hosni Mubarak's rule.

But like moderates across Egypt and the Islamic world, he and his customers reject what they perceive as US-imposed, Western-style democracy even as they long for greater freedom.

''We want both -- democracy and stability," says Mohammed al Sharkawy, 73, an apartment rental agent taking tea at Baradi. ''But stability is the more important. . . . When there is stability, we common people can work and provide for our families."

A few blocks away, shopkeeper Ahmed Abdul Latif, 42, emerges from the handsome Assad Ibn al Furat Mosque in upper-middle-class Mohandessin -- where the Friday sermon has just emphasized that jihad should primarily be a person's internal struggle for purity. With civility and conviction, he talks about the relationships between Islam and democracy, and between the United States and the Muslim world, that he feels Americans just don't get.

''The elections were based on injustice from the start," he says. ''The Iraqi people are occupied. The Palestinian people are occupied. The United States will use whatever excuse works for establishing its dominance of the region.

''There is a lot of injustice in the Arab world," he says. ''We know it. What we refuse is to have it corrected from the outside."

Latif also is unwilling to separate religion from the state -- and in saying so he touches on one of the central differences in political doctrine between Western democracies and much of the Islamic world. ''Islam has its own form of democracy, our kind of democracy," he says. ''Our problem is we have not found a way to implement that. . . . All the problems we are experiencing in the street are because we are not implementing the word of God."

Even people who applaud the removal of Saddam Hussein, or who back US calls for greater democracy in the Middle East, say US efforts to rally support among moderate Muslims have so far largely failed. Many current and former US officials who have worked on the issue generally agree, though those who hold government positions cannot say so openly.

And these analysts worry that if democracy does emerge in the Middle East, the winners in those elections may well be hardline Islamists.

''At the end of the day, we don't know what to do" about the contradiction between Bush's professed intention to spread democracy and the US national interest in having allies that provide air rights and logistical support for US forces in the region, says a senior US official with extensive experience in the region. ''If the [Bush] program succeeds, a Hosni Mubarak can't be leader of Egypt. He could not win a truly free election. The Saudi kingdom can't be the Saudi kingdom. There might be a king, but he would be like the king of England, a constitutional monarch."

President Bush's proposal to combat Islamic extremism by promoting democracy and development is positive, says Osama El Baz, Mubarak's chief adviser and a leading moderate in the region. ''But it came across sounding like American designs that would be rammed down the throats of decadent, backward Muslims -- one size fits all. You cannot win the war against extremism only, or even mainly, by force. The war should be fought in the minds of people, through education, sermons, the press, literature."

Skepticism in Egypt
The Zuwayla Gate into medieval Cairo was for 500 years a grimy, deteriorating shambles, its four-ton doors broken in the closed position, its decay a sad symbol of a once illustrious Muslim civilization. Then, between 1998 and 2003, the United States poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into renovations. Ambassador David Welch said the aid indicated the United States' commitment to Egypt's Islamic heritage.

Now the gate, which dates to 1092, and the still older lane that runs through it, pulse with life and commerce. Every square yard of street space is jammed with peddlers of cheese and figs and cloth and cushions. Business is brisk, and the residents are very pleased.

''The renovation is sweet as honey," says Umm Reda, a big woman with a broad smile who has sold lush, dark figs and succulent grapes here for 23 of her 40 years, ''It looks pretty. It brings the tourists."

''Life is beautiful," exults Gaber Ahmed Metwalli, who looks far younger than his 86 years and has been selling cheese here for half a century. ''Cairo is doing very well. They've done good work with this renovation."

Neither of them knows that US money paid for the restoration, part of US aid programs to Egypt that last year sent $1.3 billion in military assistance and $500 million in civil assistance.

Egypt is the second-largest recipient of US foreign aid, after Israel, but most ordinary Egyptians who benefit -- small businessmen who receive low-interest loans, residents of neighborhoods where sewers are modernized through subsidized projects, poor families whose children's education is supported by US grants -- are unaware of who the donor is.

Others, who are aware, dismiss the US grants as an effort to buy them off.

''The Americans do these things to buy the love of the people," says Ahmed Gamal, 30, a mechanic in the neighborhood around the ancient Amr Ibn el-Aas Mosque, where the United States has invested extensively in projects to control groundwater that was undermining the mosque and causing sewage to flood the streets. ''It is a sort of bribe."

Such doubts about anything and anyone supported by the United States -- widely held across the Muslim world, particularly in Arab countries -- underscore how difficult it will be for the United States to help moderate voices gain political power.

Such doubts are heard in Morocco, where cabs plying the streets of Casablanca blare programs on Radio Sawa, the round-the-clock Arabic-language radio station set up by the United States after 9/11. ''The music is good," one driver says, ''but the talk -- it is a pack of lies."

A countervailing message is heard on many of the Arab satellite broadcast channels. Their relentless focus is on the suffering of the Palestinian people under Israeli hegemony -- a hegemony, they tell their listeners, that is sustained with the connivance of Israel's principal ally, the US. Meanwhile, in Lebanon, where the United States and France joined hands this spring to pressure Syria to end its 29-year military occupation, many people feel the United States is motivated mainly by narrow self-interest.

''We know well that in 1990 and 1991, the Americans agreed to let the Syrians have their way with Lebanon so that Syria would participate in the liberation of Kuwait," says Zi'ad Abs, 32, a longtime prodemocracy activist in Beirut. ''The Americans now find a role for Lebanon [as a model for new policies], so I have hope."

The war of words
Al Hawtah lies northeast of Riyadh, about halfway from Saudi Arabia's capital city to the Muslim fundamentalist stronghold of Buraydah, in the Saudi equivalent of the Bible Belt. Since the 1970s it has grown from a hamlet of 3,400 people, without telephones or electricity, to a town of 30,000, with its own small oilfield and plenty of local money, without losing its tradition of hospitality or its taste for simplicity.

Older men welcome visitors to mats, set on the ground in their fields, to pass the time between the sunset prayer and the night prayer, eating dates from their own trees and sipping a bitter, unroasted coffee. Thirty of their sons -- the town's teachers, preachers, and businessmen -- turn out for a meal arranged by a Riyadh professor for an American visitor.

They are warmly welcoming, serving coffee, sweets, and dates even as they quiz their guest about US hostility toward Muslims in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. Mostly they want to know why President Bush used the word ''crusade" to describe the war on terrorism, and why there is what they perceive as a stream of anti-Muslim rhetoric emanating from the United States.

Several have brought with them an article originally written two years ago by Gary Leupp, a Tufts University professor of history, for the website Counterpunch, which collected egregious statements by high-profile Americans like Ann Coulter, the proudly inflammatory conservative writer. ''We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity," Coulter wrote, referring to terrorists like those who launched the 9/11 attacks. Such comments and the president's controversial ''crusade" reference might strike Americans today as old news, but they are far from forgotten in the Muslim world. Even in the hospitable gathering at Al Hawtah, most take such words as a true reflection of American attitudes toward Islam -- and have a ready riposte to the suggestion that comments like Coulter's are outside the US mainstream.

''That may be," says a local teacher. ''So why are your people so ready to believe that bin Laden and al Qaeda represent Islam?"

Bridging the cultural gap
In Jeddah, the most worldly of Saudi cities, architect Sami Angawi is trying to bridge the cultural gap between the West and the Muslim world, to replace the rhetoric of conflict with a conversation among civilizations.

Angawi has built a huge, fabulous house that is a physical representation of his concept of Islamic history and culture. Water trickles through graceful pools in the spacious atrium, which is surrounded by rooms that combine historical motifs and artifacts with modern designs and techniques. Here Angawi hosts regular salons of thinkers and leaders, constructing articulate, Koran-based responses to extremists who call for conflict in the name of religion.

An elegant and soft-spoken man, Angawi is an authority on the history of Mecca and Medina. He is also one of the principal designers of New England's largest mosque and Islamic center, now under construction in Roxbury.

''Our prophet always sought the middle way," he says, noting that for centuries the Great Mosque in Mecca was surrounded by hundreds of classrooms at which many different schools of Islamic thought were taught, sometimes by women. Now, he says, fundamentalists have too much influence in Islamic circles, and the United States has too much influence in international affairs. ''We have to find a way to balance," he says. ''Otherwise, there will be additional fuel for extremism and hate."

Angawi was influential in persuading Saudi rulers to undertake an ongoing series of national dialogues on society, politics, and religion that began last year.

''We have a long way to go," he says. ''What we need is for America not to encourage extremism with talking about 'the Islamic this, and the Islamic that.' We have to isolate the problem [of extremism] and work on it."

One of the most important requirements for working on it, he stresses, is for the peoples and leaders of the Muslim world and the West to recognize and respect some of their basic differences.

''I don't think we can agree 100 percent, but maybe most people agree on 60 percent to start," he says. ''Maybe there's 10 percent we'll never agree on. And we should talk about the rest. God says in the Koran, 'If I'd wanted you all to be the same, I would have made you so.' "

End of series

Charles A. Radin can be reached at

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