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Obama could alter dynamics in Mideast

Fleishman is a Times staff writer.

Despising America has long been a Middle East pastime, but then the country that brought war to Iraq and orange-suited prisoners to Guantanamo Bay elected a Facebook-friendly president who speaks in poems.

What’s a mullah to do?

With the speed of a Twitter missive, the cultural game has shifted. Barack Obama’s rise to the White House comes when the Arabs are intensely suspicious of U.S. intentions, and when Islam, through satellite TV and the Internet, is inundated with Western culture.

Eight years of President Bush gave conservative Muslims a buttress against America. But Obama, who plays as well in Hollywood as he does in the villages of Kenya, is changing Washington’s image from a cowboy with snarling sound bites to a conciliator with star appeal.

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The Middle East probably won’t put aside its mistrust of Washington over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iraq and regional flash points, including Iran’s nuclear program. The early elation in the Arab media over Obama’s victory was later balanced with the belief that the president-elect is encumbered by entrenched U.S. policies, and that what looms before the world is a new face, one with international sensibilities, yet ultimately one that will act in American interests.

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‘Voice of voiceless’

But Obama’s is a multicultural face that narrows degrees of separation. He is the Christian son of a Muslim father; he seems more a citizen of the world than an Illinois senator. To many in the Middle East, he is that rare thing: a minority who, with breathtaking speed and without a military coup, has risen to political prominence. This strikes deeply in a part of the world where repression carries a twofold meaning: Western power and military dominance, and Arab regimes that silence dissent.

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“His resonant, melodic voice is heard as the voice of the voiceless,” Gamal Nkrumah, whose father, Kwame, led Ghana to independence from British rule in 1957, wrote in the Egyptian weekly Al Ahram. “Obama’s genius is that he appeals to the well-heeled liberals in Western nations as much as the penniless peasants of impoverished nations, the teeming millions eking out a meager existence.”

The president-elect presents new dangers to the established order. He is charismatic and cyber-savvy; he bridges hip-hop and Mozart; his middle name is Hussein. He built a campaign around a well-choreographed electronic populism that generated millions of dollars in Internet donations.

This strategy speaks to religious and political reformers in the Middle East, who in recent years have turned to blogs and Facebook groups to organize government protests and debate Islamic tenets.

U.S. allies Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Morocco jail dissident bloggers and online commentators. These governments, which are crucial to regional stability and the stemming of terrorism, are frequently criticized by democracy advocates and human rights groups. The Internet, YouTube and message boards, which Obama navigated to win the support of steelworkers, college students and investment bankers, are viewed by leaders in this region as dangerous tools of revolt for the young.

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Obstacles ahead

This is where Obama’s lyrical prose meets the gruff calculus of the police state. Would he recommend cutting the nearly $1.8 billion in annual U.S. aid to Egypt if President Hosni Mubarak’s government continues rounding up political opponents? How far would he go to push for civil rights in the oil kingdom of Saudi Arabia?

Obama’s presidency also comes when the Middle East is engaged in intense debate between Muslim moderates and conservatives over the role of Islam. Moderates seek more openness to democracy and rapprochement with the West. Obama offers a tantalizing message that may inspire them while disarming fundamentalists who gained followers and benefited from what many here regard as Bush’s war against Muslims.

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Religious devotion is growing in the Middle East, and Islamic puritans worry that the widening intrusion that the telegenic Obama personifies threatens their hold on society. Muslim rappers scat about women’s rights and tolerance; sitcoms are embracing romance and sexual allure; and a new generation of TV preachers, the Islamic version of their Christian counterparts, are dynamic speakers, less rigid in their interpretations of holy texts. Tailored suits have replaced beards and tunics.

The Obama presidency will intensify the influence of American culture, but that dynamic can’t appear to diminish the permeating role that Islam -- be it moderate or conservative -- has on Arab society. Yet even Obama’s facial characteristics emblazoned on T-shirts seem more a reflection of the region than a foreign-imposed graphic. Islamic militants probably will be forced to search for new symbols in rallying followers to blow themselves up in their war against the U.S.

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Critics allege bias

Skepticism, however, can spin like a desert storm, and even the most effervescent poster-sized smile can dim quickly in the Middle East. Arab newspapers are already criticizing Obama for his postelection comments and decisions, especially regarding the Arab-Israeli divide. Obama’s campaign statements about Israel and his naming of Rahm Emanuel, a Jew whose father once had links to a militant Zionist organization, as his chief of staff have Arab commentators warning of an Israeli bias.

The president-elect is considered the antidote to Bush; one cannot imagine, at least not yet, him being burned in effigy at the edge of a souk. But in this region, politics and history are score cards, and if the Arab-Israeli conflict shows no sign of improving, Obama probably will face “Imperialist America” slogans and placards painted in vitriol.

But for now, it’s a fascinating Bluetooth moment; cyberspace is abuzz from North Africa to Damascus, Syria, to the white sands of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The Arab world is about respect, saving face; you can cut a man, but you give him his dignity. Arabs say the Bush administration seldom understood this; they’re hoping Obama’s does.

A blog called the Black Iris of Jordan put it this way:

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“Congratulations are in order to the American people and the Obama fan base. So begins a new chapter in American history, to say nothing of world history. Fingers crossed that it will be a positive one, especially for this region.”

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jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com


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