Millions of Arabs who might have otherwise been indifferent towards the 2016 U.S. presidential election now find themselves glued to their television screens and smart phones, actively yet anxiously awaiting the latest news about an unconventional candidate.
Though most Arabs view Donald Trump as increasingly erratic, racist, and frightening, some reluctantly concede that a few of his positions – particularly on fighting the Islamic state and none- democracy promotion – are rather appealing.
“Is the Trump thing real? Does he really have a chance? Will the American people ever elect such a man to be the leader of the Free World? What are the implications for our region?” These are just some of the sentiments about Donald Trump I have encountered during recent travel to several Arab capitals I have come across in some discussions with Arab opinion makers.
Historically, most Arabs believed that the American presidential election would exert only a negligible effect upon U.S. policy toward the Middle East. However, George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and calling for democracy promotion throughout the region, as well as legacy of the Obama’s Syria policy prove that an American president’s policies can and will exert a considerable effect upon the Arab world.
Nonetheless, Arabs tend to agree that a Trump presidency would destabilize the Arab world to a much greater degree than would a Hillary Clinton administration. An editorial appearing in the Arab newspaper Ra’i Alyoum captured this sentiment by noting that a hypothetical Trump victory would deal America’s Arab allies a painful “double-shock”: after all, Arab regimes have, for decades, relied on maintaining close relationships with Republican presidents such as Ronald Reagan and Bush, father and son; moreover, many Arabs allies, particularly those in the Gulf, still admire the willingness of Republican administrations to go to war in the Middle East, fighting to liberate Kuwait in 1990-1 and then to topple Saddam Hussein a decade later.
Yet, should Trump occupy the Oval Office, all such bets in the Arab world are off. A closer look at Trump’s positions towards Islam and major Middle Eastern issues reveal five key points fueling debate about the American election on the Arab street – not all of which are necessarily in agreement.
First and foremost, the Obama administration’s mixed record in the region has led many Arabs to believe that a Republican victory next month could actually mark a positive turning point in U.S. policy towards the Arab Middle East. Jeffery Goldberg’s seminal article, the Obama Doctrine, revealed the deep distrust the current Democratic administration holds for America’s traditional Gulf Arab allies, particularly when it comes to their historical distrust of major regional rival Iran. Therefore, a large portion of Trump’s appeal on the Arab street arises out of the tough stance he has pledged to take vis-à-vis Iran and his promises to repeal the P5+1 nuclear signed with Iran in 2015, which remains deeply unpopular throughout the Arab world.
Second, Arabs fear over a potential Trump presidency largely tempers their hopes for a Republican administration, sparked by Trump’s proposal for “a total and complete shutdown upon Muslims entering the United States.” Muslims worldwide reacted with shock and outrage over Trump’s unconstitutional pledge to ban them from traveling to the United States, which Trump disingenuously justified on the grounds that, as a matter of religious principle, all Muslims hate Americans – a dangerous allegation which could not be further from the truth.
Third, Many Arabs despise Trump’s racism, but they remain largely uncertain of what a Hillary Clinton presidency would mean for the region: Prominent Egyptian businessman claimed that Clinton and Obama to be blamed Egypt’ and the Middle East’s chaos. Saudi analyst and writer Ahmed Farrag notes that while “Clinton’s previous experience in and unsurpassed knowledge of our region may ultimately be for the best,” “Trump” may actually be better equipped to combat, confront, and extinguish the rising tide of extremism spreading like a plague throughout the region.
Forth, Some Arabs have been encouraged by Trump’s pledge to his initial “neutrally” approach negotiations between Israelis and the Palestinians – a significant break from long-standing US foreign policy tradition that has strongly favored Israel. Contrasting sharply with Hillary Clinton, who has vowed to repair the U.S.-Israeli relationship, Trump has refused to pick sides, stating that “he would seek harmony in the Middle East as commander in chief no matter the difficulty.”
Finally, Other Arabs pundits have celebrated Trump’s success because they believe his campaign has already dealt significant damage to America’s international image; should Trump, the very definition of the ugly American, be elected president, America’s reputation on the world stage would only suffer further. Should he be elected, Washington would lose any moral or ethical stand in lecturing Arab autocratic leaders about human rights and democracy.
* Mohamed Elmenshawy is Washington Bureau Chief for Alaraby Television Network and a columnist for Alshorouk, an Egyptian Daily. He can be reached on twitter via @ElMenshawyM or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.