Democracy in America? Watching 'The West Wing' With Egyptians in Cairo

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The U.S. embassy's new effort to teach Egyptians about American electoral politics

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President Josiah Bartlett (right) debates Republican challenger Robert Ritchie in season four of The West Wing. (NBC/YouTube)

CAIRO -- The screening room of the public library in the U.S. Embassy is dim and quiet. Around 20 pairs of eyes are locked on the flat screen Sony TV at the front as the theme song to The West Wing rises to a crescendo. On the right wall hangs a map of America with U.S. Electoral College votes divvied up by state; on the left side stands a table stacked with booklets called "U.S.A. Elections in Brief" in English and Arabic, sandwiched between cardboard cut-outs of president Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

The Embassy's Public Affairs office is screening Episode 17, Season 7, of Aaron Sorkin's signature creation. (Spoiler Alert: It's the one with the presidential election, in which VP candidate Leo McGarry dies of a heart attack about an hour and half before polls close on the West coast, throwing the campaign into a massive tailspin. The Democrat barely wins based on the final votes from Nevada.)

The group seated around me prepares to learn about American electoral politics and mechanics in the run-up to the U.S. polls led by deputy press attaché David Linfield. The gathered are young, self-selected, and English-speaking Egyptians, but it's the kind of hearts-and-minds approach to American public diplomacy that people are always getting excited about, especially in light of America's image problems in the region.

America and the most populous Arab country have long had a fraught relationship -- but that looked set to change with the election of Obama in 2008. Back then, it felt like I couldn't get into an Egyptian taxi without the driver asking if I was American, and then flashing an ecstatic thumb's up for "Barack Hussein Obama." Many cheered his June 2009 speech at Cairo University about healing the wounds of George W. Bush's two invasions of Muslim countries.

But like in the U.S., the shine for Obama is off in Egypt. Public opinion of him dropped significantly since he took office, tumbling from 42 percent in 2009 to 29 percent in June 2012 according to the Pew Global Opinion Poll. Egypt's own strides in democracy -- this year saw the first free and fair presidential elections in Egyptian history after overthrowing their long-ruling dictator -- hasn't brought any warmer feelings toward America, despite Obama's eventual support for the country's uprising.

Like in the U.S., the shine is off for Obama in Egypt.

Many of the same frustrations and conspiracy theories that bedeviled relations before the revolution -- including U.S. support for Israel and lackluster support for the Palestinian state -- persist in the Egypt of 2012.

As Sorkin's characters analyze swing states in possibly the quickest paced dialogue of all time (the embassy is looking for a copy with Arabic subtitles), Linfield pauses the show to take questions and explain the Electoral College. When someone asks whether Hurricane Sandy will derail voter participation, Linfeild says they'll have to wait and see, and then has to explain that only about half of eligible Americans actually vote. (This doesn't seem to shock anyone; the Egyptian presidential election in May and June had a similar level of popular turnout.)

After Hispanic candidate Matt Santos ends the episode with his victory speech, the group begins its discussion: "I was disappointed because Obama is moving the United States toward socialism," says Amira, a self-declared supporter of the Republican Party announces (possibly the first I have met in Egypt -- though the country is socially conservative, Republicans earned a bad reputation over years of military incursions in the region). She mentions that Obama grew up on the "dole" and now that he's in office, he's continuing to push the "dole." When I ask her later where she gets her news, she tells me unabashedly, "The right wing media websites."

"It's not fair to elect a president just because he is from your race," Amira continues, discussing both a concept that came up in the show and a critique she has of Obama supporters. Another viewer pipes up to defend the current US president and parrots a line from the episode. "Their vision for America is the reason to vote [for them]."

While Amira's Republican tendencies are pretty rare in Egypt, her preference for Obama's opponent isn't, according to a Brookings paper from May 2012: "Presented with a choice between President Obama and likely Republican candidate Mitt Romney, 73% said they preferred Romney, and only 25% chose Obama. It is unlikely that most Egyptians know much about Romney, and the choice is more likely to be an expression of disappointment with Obama."

The Democracy Report The same paper prefaced its data with humor saying that, although Egyptians hadn't been paying as much attention to this presidential race as in the past, "and they probably know less about the Republican candidates for president, that has not prevented them from giving their opinions."

Standing at the front of the room, Linfield asks where president Obama is from. Everyone is silent. "No one knows," Amira laughs.

A girl in a beige headscarf in the back of the screening room raises her hand to ask a question. "What do they mean when they say 'Obama lost his touch?'" She explains that she heard it somewhere. A guy sitting behind me chimes in: "Do you mean, they said, 'He's out of touch?'"

I was told that 12 years ago, many Egyptians looked forward to the election of George W. Bush, remembering with fondness his father's tough stance with Israel over settlements. They could not have been more disappointed. Their supposed preference for Romney could well be a similar fallacy, and now many I speak to go back to talking about missing Bill Clinton, though Obama remains preferable to Bush.

Yet Ahmed Waly, a 26-year-old political science student at Helwan University still thinks the U.S. should vote Democrat. "Obama will help the people more, with health insurance and education, Romney only cares about rich people," he tells me. "He's a typical copy of George Bush, he thinks America should be a hard power, everywhere. He doesn't support countries, or Arab Spring countries, or investment outside America."

After the episode and discussion, Waly admits he's still a little confused about the Electoral College, but is trying to figure it all out. When I ask him why, he shrugs and tells me, "The U.S. is the world leader, what happens in D.C. affects everyone, it doesn't matter if we like it or we don't like it."

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Sarah A. Topol is a Cairo-based journalist. She has reported from Bahrain, Egypt, Israel and Palestine, Libya, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Her writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, GQ, the New Republic, Newsweek, and Slate, among others.

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