Karen Hughes, the new public diplomacy czar charged with improving the U.S. image, began her maiden diplomatic voyage Sunday, meeting in picturesque settings with Egyptian students who have benefited from American largess.
Hughes said she would steer clear of meeting with representatives of Egypt's largest opposition group, and a lunch scheduled for Monday with "opinion leaders" includes mostly people supportive of the government that has ruled the country under emergency decree for a quarter-century.
Outside the carefully vetted settings of Hughes's visit, interviews with ordinary Egyptians indicated deep anger at the policies of the Bush administration.
"You American people are 100 percent good," said Farouq Hickel, a bearded minivan driver who was walking past the Bab Zuwayla, a 900-year-old Islamic monument, restored with U.S. funds, that Hughes toured. "We have no problems with Americans. But look at what Bush is doing -- he is messing up the world." Hurricane Katrina, he said, was God's revenge for President Bush's actions.
Hughes, recently confirmed as undersecretary of state, has attracted enormous attention in her new role, largely because she is one of the president's closest confidantes. Undersecretaries generally travel with a handful of aides, but Hughes has brought along a planeload of reporters, including representatives of all five U.S. television networks, one from al-Arabiya television and a writer from GQ magazine.
Speaking to reporters for nearly an hour as she flew to Cairo, Hughes appeared to set a relatively low bar for judging the success of her mission.
"Many of the differences and many of the concerns are deep-seated, and I'm probably not going to change many minds," Hughes said. "But if I make a connection with a person or two who I can keep following up with after I leave here on my trip, I would consider it a success."
Hughes betrayed some nervousness in her first diplomatic foray, which will also take her to Saudi Arabia and Turkey. This is her first visit to any of the countries, and as she spoke to reporters she clutched briefing papers that appeared to be the diplomatic equivalent of Cliffs Notes. Turkey was a "democratic state," and Egypt was the "most populous" country in the region, the document said.
Asked if she was meeting in Cairo with members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hughes turned to an aide and indicated she was not sure of the answer. The aide whispered back, and Hughes replied, "We are respectful of Egypt's laws."
The activities of the Muslim Brotherhood are officially banned, but it is regarded as the country's largest opposition party and has pressed for a more open political system in Egypt, the stated goal of U.S. policy. Nor does Hughes have plans to meet with representatives of Kifaya, an umbrella opposition group.
The magnitude of Hughes's task was demonstrated by the headlines of Sunday morning's edition of le Progres Egyptien, a French-language newspaper. Featured were Israel's attack in Gaza, a declaration that Egypt's reforms would never be imposed from above, new accusations of atrocities by U.S. troops in Iraq and a feature suggesting that Bush was considered a greater menace than Osama bin Laden.
Hughes acknowledged that she faced "a huge challenge" but said she would focus on stressing the compassion of the United States to highlight the contrast with violent extremism. The administration's policies offer "education, opportunity, freedom of speech and expression," she said. "Terrorists, their policies force young people, other people's daughters and sons, to strap on bombs and blow themselves up."
Hughes traveled first to the 1,000-year-old al-Azhar University for a meeting with Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, a Sunni Muslim leader who is close to the government and has spoken out against extremism. A recent fatwa, or decree, by Tantawi -- saying normalization of ties with Israel was theologically acceptable -- has generated controversy and anger in Egypt. Local media speculated that the cleric issued it because the Egyptian government recently deployed troops to guard the southern part of Gaza after Israel's withdrawal.
At Bab Zuwayla, Hughes climbed a tower to gaze over the city skyline. "It's magical," the former television reporter said. "A thousand minarets -- and satellite dishes."
Then she sat down with five high school exchange students who had spent a year in the United States. Ahmed Gammal, 18, lived in Hudson, Ind., and said no one in the small town knew anything about Egypt. "When I said I was from Egypt, they asked, 'Do you ride camels or live in pyramids?' " he said. "They were serious."
Police lined the streets around the monument, suspiciously eyeing people who spoke to reporters. Mohamed Osman, a government employee, said Hughes's trip was potentially important. "Americans are biased against Islam," he explained. "Look what they are doing in Iraq." But he hurried away after two policeman came over.
Amani Fikri, an editor at an opposition newspaper, tried to stay for the student event but was asked to leave. She said Hughes needed to tell Bush to change his policies and stop backing undemocratic governments in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East. "The American people are very good and kind," she said but pointed out that Bush's reelection made it "very difficult to differentiate between the American people and American policy."
Hughes also met with students -- all recipients of scholarships from a U.S.-funded program -- at the American University in Cairo, an elite English-language institution. The students asked generally polite but occasionally pointed questions on Iraq and U.S. policy toward Syria and Iran.