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

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."

Presented by

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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