Hyperbole travels lightly these days, and watching the results and reactions pour in last night through a haze of shisha smoke and sweet Arabic coffee, one could easily be convinced that the whole world was trembling with Obamania. Yet as the sun rose on another warm winter's day in downtown Cairo, it was hard to detect much truth in the stratospheric verdicts of some pundits who claimed that ever corner of the world had just changed forever. "On this morning, we all want to be American so we can take a bite of this dream unfolding before our eyes," said one giddy French minister. Here, beyond the drunken American expats stumbling home from an embassy election party, most of the people walking around at dawn looked like they would rather have a bite to eat.
Analysis of the "global response" to Barack Obama's stunning victory last night tends to oscillate erratically between the elite and the street, interspersing the thoughts of diplomatic officialdom with quotes from random taxi drivers encountered by the reporter on the way to the airport. Neither approach offers a particularly satisfying insight into the significance of Obama's victory beyond America's borders, and it's easy to question the veracity of sweeping generalisations regarding any country's "popular" stance on the elections.
Egypt was a prime example of this in the run-up to the poll: an opinion-editorial by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times suggesting that the Egyptian masses were overwhelmingly pro-Obama was rubbished by others, with one respected blogger arguing that most people outside the political classes here don't even recognise Obama's name. "Friedman wouldn't understand that because these types of people don't hang out at the five-star hotels he stays in when on the road," remarked the analyst pointedly.
So how do Egyptians feel now about the victory of a man so often derided in the US – incorrectly – as an Arab and a Muslim? It's fair to say that most are relieved and even cautiously optimistic about the result; the Economist's global electoral college showed 92% support for Obama in the Arab world's largest country and although those voting online tended to be middle-class educated citizens with internet access, there's no doubt that among those who knew and cared about this contest Obama was the clear favourite.
There is a palpable sense of satisfaction that Americans themselves have passed such a damning verdict on the Bush era, an era which brought so much carnage to this region. This satisfaction has two distinct strands to it, and in order to understand why images of a mixed-race family waving to the crowds in Grant Park meant anything to an Egyptian, it is important to separate them out.
The first concerns the impact an Obama presidency will have on Egypt and its Middle Eastern neighbours. Despite disappointment at Obama's decision not to include Cairo on his whistle-stop tour of Middle Eastern hotspots earlier this year – credited to the senator's unwillingness to be seen "palling around" with dictators like Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak – his new administration will have to take Egypt seriously. "The anchor that Egypt has been in the region to many US policies will carry us forward to the next 30 years and beyond," says Margaret Scobey, the US ambassador to Cairo. Often rocky and sometimes downright hostile, it's clear that the "Catholic marriage" between the two nations, as one state newspaper refers to it, will need to be patched up if America's alliance of "friendly" geopolitical players like Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt is to hold. Viewed universally as a less bombastic and more thoughtful leader than Bush, there is hope amongst many diplomats that Obama will help facilitate such a patching up, especially as his win appears to push the prospect of a military confrontation with Iran further off the table.
Yet high-level diplomacy holds little relevance for most Egyptians, struggling with rising levels of unemployment and inflation and a yawning chasm between rich and poor. In terms of Obama's foreign policy, it is scepticism and not jubilation that rules the roost, and that scepticism cuts across the social spectrum. As many have observed, Obama's advisers are hardly a "neo-conservative free zone" and regardless, there is a widespread belief here that any American president of any colour or stripe will act solely in the interests of the US, including its new one. Hopes that the Democrat incumbent will use his position to push for a just and lasting peace in Palestine, curtail the "war on terror", or take on the Arab autocrats long propped up by American aid are all thin on the ground. "Bush's call for democracy was not ideologically motivated, as many seem to think, (rather) it was his way to promote US interests," said Essam El-Erian, leader of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood opposition group. Secular anti-government activists are also doubtful that Egypt's authoritarian regime will face a tougher ride with Obama in the White House.
Why should Obama's victory mean anything to "ordinary" Egyptians? The reason is the second, emotional strand. Far removed from the vagaries of potential foreign policy formulations, there is a visceral response to last night which cannot be underestimated. It's that a black man in the White House feels, in the words of one blogger, like a "little victory" in the face of "cultural invasion, globalisation and defeat". The "soft" penetration of America into Egyptian society in the form of TV, music and crass commercialism has been welcomed by many, particularly well-off youths who seek to aggressively embody American values through their clothes, gadgets and lifestyle choices. But, just as when (untrue) rumours of actor Will Smith and footballer Thierry Henry converting to Islam spread round the Arab world like wildfire, the ascendancy of Obama – shorthand, rightly or wrongly, for the marginalised, the dispossessed, those who fall under the radar of "mainstream" globalised stereotypes about what power and success should look like – proves for many that, just for once, supremacy can flow the other way as well.
And, without falling victim to saccharine rhetoric, that feeling can inspire hope beyond American shores. Egypt's masses are disenfranchised from their political system; they too must stand aside and watch as those with power and money shape their country's destiny and commandeer its riches, just as black Americans have been forced to for generations. Last weekend the country's ruling NDP held its annual conference where, once again, all discussion of the successor to 80-year-old Mubarak was ruthlessly dismissed by his son, widely tipped to take up that exact role himself in the future. This morning's result hasn't led every Egyptian to wish they were an American, but it has shown that status quos can be overcome, even in the unlikeliest of settings. An Obama-esque triumph, said Freidman, "couldn't happen anywhere in this region. Could a Copt become president of Egypt? Not a chance. Could a Shiite become the leader of Saudi Arabia? Not in 100 years. A Bahai president of Iran? In your dreams. Here, the past always buries the future, not the other way around." If Egyptians are taking a bite of any dream today, it's the dream that Friedman might just be wrong.