Reaction to Barack Obama's victory over John McCain has been enthusiastic around the world, not least in the Arab-language press. But a few editorial writers in the region wonder what will actually change.
"The Arabs [who prayed for Obama to win] are mistaken if they bet that the president of change in America will return the favor," the United Arab Emirates' daily Al-Khaleej cautioned Thursday, expressing the by-now familiar concern that "Israeli interests" will "govern [Obama's] vision of the Arab region and the Middle East."
The Middle East Media Research Institute isolated some of the more incendiary morsels the day after the election, in a piece titled "Initial Arab Media Reactions to Obama's Election." In it, MEMRI quoted one of the most hardline conservative Iranian dailies (not an "Arab media" source but a Persian one, for those keeping track at home), Johmuri-ye Eslami, which wrote on Nov. 5 that: "The most that that black man can do in the White House is to replace some of the staff and change some ceremonial procedures. He will never manage to change the structure of the American regime, which was established by capitalists, Zionists, and racists."
By contrast, Al-Jazeera TV noted that Obama's election was unsettling some Israeli hawks, reporting that "officials in Tel Aviv [are] concerned that Obama will try to bring the Islamic world closer to the United States by pressuring Israel into offering concessions."
When not attempting to predict the future of political agreements, however, many Arabic newspapers were cheered America's historic milestone. Particularly ebullient was a Thursday editorial in Saudi Arabia's Okaz, penned by Khalaf Al-Harbi:
For the millionth time, America disappointed its critics and mocked those who expressed doubts about the truth of its democracy. For the millionth time, America proved that it is a republic of man no matter his ethnicity, religion or cultural background. For the millionth time, American proved, by action and not merely words, that it is the country of equal opportunity, social justice, real freedom, and creative democracy. We, who live outside America, do not love this giant empire because of its cruel hegemony over the world. Yet we cannot deceive ourselves by hiding our admiration for this reinvigorated American spirit that is not blinded by might or corrupted by supremacy for the United States, whether we liked it or not, is always capable of reinventing itself and mocking all other countries of the world that cannot show the same degree of dedication and loyalty to their professed principles.
While reading pro-American prose in a pro-government Saudi paper is not so unusual, Al-Harbi went on to trash President George W. Bush in terms slightly harsher than one normally reads in the Kingdom:
George Bush, Jr. distorted the image of America by replacing the image of Lady Liberty with that of Guantanamo Bay. He destroyed all the humanitarian values that America brags about respecting with the miserable debacle of the Abu-Ghraib prison. He established a department for homeland security and made the Generals of Pentagon his only outlet for communicating with the rest of the world. He set about spreading democracy through aircraft carriers so he committed in Afghanistan the most terrible humanitarian crimes when the richest country in the world crushed one of the poorest countries in the world then he committed in Iraq the most terrible cultural crime when the newest civilization on earth tried to destroy one of the earliest civilizations on earth.
Thus Bush almost singlehandedly destroyed the American empire because of his rashness. Maybe this threat of collapse is still alive today but America armed itself yesterday against this threat with its real armor, which enabled it to ascend to the leadership of the world. This armor is much stronger than all of its ballistic missiles: it is the armor of equality, democracy and the endless ability to change. This is the real America that cannot be denied even by its enemies. This America doesn't care about who you are or where you come from, as it only cares about what you can present to the American nation. I am almost certain that Al-Qaeda, as an example, would never dare to appoint a man of African origins as its head despite all its religious values about equality between humans.
In Kuwait, columnist Ja'afar Rajab instructed the region's citizens to rise to America's example. "The people that make their own history produce not only historical men, but men that make history as well. That is how nations make their history while we continue to make a history of quicksand," Rajab wrote in Al-Rai al-Aam, adding:
[W]hen [Americans] carry the slogan of change, the sons hold the hands of their white fathers to change their white opinions because they want to vote for their children and their futures -- while the 'lost' peoples have fathers who drag their children like 'goats' to vote according to the tribal, sectarian or partisan whims of the fathers! ... There are no constants in America except that America and everything else in the world changes. The Americans keep abreast of this change and so they remain ahead of everyone else while the rest of the people, who believe changes are blasphemous, remain standing still in their outdated clothes looking like a scarecrow in an empty field!
As for us Arabs, we must curse the Americans out of envy because we believe that America is Masonic and that elections are only a hoax managed by Jews and that Obama and McCain are two faces of the same coin and that Obama will not change his policies towards us. We have yet to realize that when we start looking at all people as equal, when we stop distributing and retracting citizenship as if it was a cinema ticket, when we start believing that change is the only constant in life and stop holding on to the past, and when we believe in the humanity of all people, and in the will and freedom of individuals, then and only then will the world change the way it looks at us! The scene that stirred my emotions the most was that of a young American woman who shouted in front of the cameras: 'we changed the world.' She pushed me to wonder: what did we ever change, other than the diapers of our children!
In an interesting twist, one of the campaign's final mini-controversies made it into the Arabic media's post-election analysis. In praising Obama, London's Arabic-language Al Hayat noted that the president-elect "knew the late Palestinian writer and thinker Edward Said and is friends with the prominent Palestinian writer and professor Rashid Khalidi, who enjoys great respect in the West and Arab circles."
"The Republican candidate, John McCain, used Khalidi's name as a criticism of Obama during the campaign, even though the friendship with Khalidi is a positive mark for Obama," the paper wrote the morning after Obama's victory. "Certainly, Arab expectations of Obama's victory clash with the interests of the United States and its permanent ally, Israel. But at the least, the prospect of change with Obama is better than continuing the policy of war, tension and blind support for Israel, without listening to the other side."