This is where we are today, after four years of the Trump presidency.
I came to the United States in the fall of 2016. By then, the military regime in Egypt had destroyed all the positive energy the Tahrir uprising had created. It wasn’t only the harshness of the repression — the killing of hundreds and jailing of tens of thousands. The regime had flooded the public space with conspiracy theories, manufactured news, suspicion, despair and hatred that created a state of collective hysteria. As everyone was discredited, the regime became the only source of “truths.” In this toxic climate, there was practically no point in writing or speaking publicly, so when Dartmouth College invited me to teach, I didn’t hesitate.
My sentiments toward the United States have always been mixed. I have serious misgivings over U.S. policies. As a former diplomat, I was all too familiar with America’s imperial posture. Its path in the Middle East is tainted with blood, exploitation and corruption. As a liberal, I was also aware of the United States’ social ills, illustrated in books such as “Beloved,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “American Pastoral” and “The New Jim Crow.” The flaws of U.S. democracy are commonplace — the marriage between money and politics, the systemic racism, elitism and inequality, as well as the devastating impact of its economic model on the global environment.
While aware of these shortcomings, I share the ideals that America claims: individual freedom, equality and fairness. These ideals are not a mere veneer; they offer standards against which we measure reality, a leverage we use to compel power to yield. They are what keep modern society together and prevent it from degenerating into one form of fascism or another. What makes the United States unique is not its power politics or social injustices. It is that it holds these ideals as self-evident and commits to pursuing them, opening venues for emancipatory struggles that would otherwise be impossible. And that is why I was happy to move here.
But Donald Trump was elected president two months after my arrival. I watched nervously as he disparaged liberal democratic ideals one after another and unabashedly pursued policies based on narrow calculations of shortsighted interest. In the Middle East, this meant the United States rallying behind its allies as they recklessly deepened conflicts, instead of reining them in. It also meant throwing the human rights agenda out the window, emboldening dictators.
Domestically, I held my breath as what was previously considered unthinkable was taking place and normalized: appointing his daughter and her husband to key positions; praising tax avoidance; decimating the independence of institutions; violating the norms that cement the political process; slandering women and minorities; promoting white supremacists and conspiracy theorists; intimidating journalists; calling the National Guard to quell protests; separating children from their families and caging them at the border. In less than four years, Trump created a stifling climate astonishingly comparable to the one I left back in Egypt.
This dark turn affected me at a more personal level. New immigration rules and deadlocks practically prevented me from traveling for more than three years — and, at one point, prevented me from writing for The Post! A friend of mine consulted lawyers as she heard that the administration could extradite her to Egypt despite her refugee status; another friend saw his legal case against his torturers derailed as the administration shielded the accused from U.S. courts. Many more of my friends were disappearing in Egyptian jails on fabricated charges, including artists, parliamentarians and leading political figures. The U.S. administration remained silent, even when American citizens died in Egyptian prisons.
This new America, uninterested in the ideals of liberal democracy at home and abroad, was dramatically put on display when Jamal Khashoggi, a Post contributing columnist and U.S. resident, was butchered by Saudi agents in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Although Trump acknowledged that the Saudi crown prince was involved and bragged that the Saudi monarchy wouldn’t last “two weeks” without U.S. support, he saw no reason to intervene in the brutal murder of the journalist. As long as the Saudis kept investing, Trump’s America was fine.
In a nutshell, Trump’s America was America stripped of its ideals.
Now that this nightmare is over, I can breathe a little better. Of course, the forces pulling the United States toward power politics and injustice will not disappear. The flaws of the U.S. political system will continue to hamper its ability to meet its ambition. The more than 70 million Americans who voted for Trump, knowingly this time, will push for various versions of him. But the space to fight for liberal democratic ideals is open once again.
The cow is finally out, and we can resume our struggles for equality, fairness and freedom, learning this time not to take what we have for granted.