A View From The Middle East: Fear Of Trump, Uninspired By Clinton

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks to media at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, August 18. 2016. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CAROLYN KASTER
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks to media at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, August 18. 2016. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CAROLYN KASTER

BEIRUT, LEBANON — Only Americans will vote in November for a new president, but that doesn’t make the world any less invested in the outcome.

U.S. military and economic power has long played a large influence globally, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the Middle East. The United States’ two largest benefactors of foreign aid (Israel and Egypt) both reside here. The U.S. president’s foreign policies are also strongly felt in this region, like the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and the Obama administration’s handling of the Syrian crisis since 2011.

The Middle East is particularly weary of a hawkish Republican candidate who threatens to commit war crimes in the region. Donald Trump was a supporter of the military invention in Iraq (despite denying it and criticizing fellow supporters in the primaries) and Libya (despite also denying it). He has also demonized Muslims throughout his campaign, calling for their racial profiling, registration in a “database,” and total ban from the United States.

“The more culturally educated, regardless of their religious sect, won’t support Donald Trump because they are concerned about his [discriminatory] policies,” Ziad Mikati, a public policy analyst from Tripoli, Lebanon, told ThinkProgress. Mikati, who was based in New York for a time, said that while he didn’t think Trump could enforce a Muslim ban — “the U.S. is based on a system of rights and the system will refuse it” — he worried about Trump’s influence on spreading Islamophobia.

Micheline Tobia, co-founder and editor of Mashallah News, an outlet that describes itself as an independent online publishing platform for ‘disOriented’ stories from the Middle East, agreed. “Trump’s rhetoric is very worrying for me and my surrounding, making it okay to say horrendous things about Muslims and the immigrant community at large,” she told ThinkProgress.

Beyond mere rhetoric, many of Trump’s advisers have built their careers — at least in part — on anti-Muslim activism. That includes Walid Phares, a former member of a Lebanese Christian nationalist militia-turned-political party who is now known for his involvement in numerous organizations spreading Islamophobia.

Phares’ involvement in the Trump administration could bode poorly for inter-religious relations in the Middle East, Dr. Imad Salamey, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at the Lebanese American University, told ThinkProgress from his office in Beirut.

“Islamophobia was created a long time ago,” Mikati said. “But Trump gives Islamophobia power — especially with regular blue collar, white Americans who can’t get over the fact there is an African American president in power.”

The majority of people interviewed said they would never consider lending support to Trump. Yet, there were those who believe Trump’s discriminatory rhetoric isn’t enough to turn them onto his opponent. The reason for that is largely down to the Obama administration’s policies in the Middle East and how they could be continued under Clinton.

“My intuition is that Muslims [in the region] are not so enthusiastic about the Democrats, either,” Salamey said, adding he personally would opt for Clinton but believes there are many in the Middle East who are deeply concerned about the prospect that her foreign policies would be an extension of Obama’s.

“Obama can be cited as the worst ever administration from the view of Arabs and Muslims because today the region is totally destroyed,” Salamey said.

When President Obama came to power in 2009, one of his first foreign visits was to Cairo. There, he delivered a speech that grasped the attention of the Arab and Muslim world and inspired hope that the world’s super power would work in the interest of the Arab people, and not their autocratic rulers.

Salamey at his Beirut office. CREDIT: JUSTIN SALHANI
Salamey at his Beirut office. CREDIT: JUSTIN SALHANI

“We are taking concrete actions to change course,” Obama told the crowd at Cairo University, referring specifically to the closing of the prison at Guantanamo Bay but also to the way the United States interacts with Middle Eastern people.

“Obama came and promised a new beginning and shyly supported the Arab Spring and then he pulled the rug out from underneath the populations in Egypt — reversing itself in support of [Egyptian President Abdel Fattah] el-Sisi — Syria, and Yemen,” Salamey said. “The consequences of the U.S. being a superpower under the Obama administration means they are partially responsible for the half a million people who lost their lives and the 15 to 20 million displaced people.”

Salamey also said the Obama administration has “done nothing” on the Israel-Palestine issue and ceded ground to Russia and Iran in Syria, where the conflict stretches into .

While Clinton regularly cites Obama’s record as a success, she has said that her Syria policy would be different. She vowed to take a more active role in the war and has previously pushed for a no-fly zone to protect civilians — something the Obama administration adamantly opposes.

But her militant positions supporting the Iraq invasion (she regrets it), intervention in Libya (she doesn’t regret it), and steadfast support of Israel also leave the Arab and Muslim world wary of her prospective leadership.

“If Hillary seeks the support of the Arab and Muslim world, she has to convince it how [her administration] will be different,” Salamey said. “Thus far she hasn’t shown how her agenda would be that different.”