It is difficult to overstate the anticipation awaiting Barack Obama’s speech to the Muslim world Thursday. The prospect of an American president who represents a break from the recent past journeying to Cairo has stirred optimism in a region accustomed to viewing U.S. power with hostility.
White House advisors have warned that few detailed proposals will be forthcoming when Obama comes to this ancient city of mosques. But the president must still navigate sensitive political and diplomatic ground.
To build support among moderate Muslims, he needs to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, long the prime grievance in the Arab world. Obama will also be seeking to enlist Muslim support in countering terrorism and show he is advancing political freedom and human rights in the repressive Arab regimes of U.S. allies.
He must convince a kaleidoscopic audience listening with varied passions and agendas from Morocco to Pakistan to Indonesia that the United States can be a friend. And he must do so with one eye fixed warily on critics back home, whose antennae seek any sign that Obama’s overture to the world’s 1 billion Muslims is tantamount to American weakness.
There are no plans to announce a comprehensive Middle East peace proposal, but Obama’s eloquence and telegenic gifts may lose resonance here if he does not articulate at least an overall strategy for delivering a Palestinian homeland. This dream unifies the Muslim world, but its achievement has bedeviled many U.S. presidents. Obama will quickly learn that it is time, in the Muslim view, for more than pretty words about respect for people of the region.
“So far people think he’s too good to be true, but what will he pursue when things get tough?” said Nabil Fahmy, former Egyptian ambassador to the U.S. “He has to deliver. It won’t be enough to simply say, ‘I respect you.’ He will have to deal with the Muslim world’s issues. . . . Expectations are high, but that’s a good problem.”
Many Arabs regard Obama as the ideal American leader to stem the bitterness between Islam and Washington that flared after Sept. 11, 2001, and burned through the invasion of Iraq and the Bush administration’s war on terrorism. He’s a Christian born of a Muslim father who supports U.S. allies while inspiring hope among democracy activists.
His is a mystique of personality and power that is rarely glimpsed among the Middle East’s own politicians. And it helps set expectations exceedingly high.
Not getting its way
The Arab world has grown accustomed to not getting its way when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. But Obama and his willingness to start afresh have dangled the possibility that change is afoot, which means national leaders as well as dissident bloggers are pinning their designs on a man who cannot please them all.
Obama’s meeting last month with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his calls to stop the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank have won praise in Arab capitals. Muslim commentators suggest that by not stopping in Jerusalem during his trip the president has snubbed Israel and is redefining America’s approach to Middle East peace. Even the Israelis have sensed a shift in attitude and demeanor.
In an interview Tuesday with National Public Radio, the president described the change in tenor in the U.S. relationship with Israel like this: “Part of being a good friend is being honest. And I think there have been times where we are not as honest as we should be about the fact that the current direction, the current trajectory, in the region is profoundly negative, not only for Israeli interests but also U.S. interests. And that’s part of a new dialogue that I’d like to see encouraged in the region.”
There is a belief in the Middle East that Obama understands that resolving the Arab-Israeli crisis will improve Washington’s ability to handle other contentious matters, such as curtailing terrorism, outmaneuvering Iran’s regional gambits, dealing with the radical group Hezbollah in Lebanon, strengthening ties with Syria and defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan.
“Obama’s speech and visit is just a good beginning and a show of goodwill,” said Diaa Rashwan, an analyst at Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “It will be for us as Arabs and Egyptians to build on it.”
Obama’s strategy centers on urging Israel to overcome its resistance to the two-state solution. To make this more palatable, the White House is asking Arab regimes, most of which do not have formal ties with Israel, to consider normalizing, at least marginally, relations with the Jewish state.
The Arab stance has been that such relations are contingent on an independent Palestinian state and Israel’s withdrawal from lands it seized in the 1967 Middle East War.
Arab leaders, according to one commentator, are being asked “to swallow more” to appease Obama’s initiative -- a request that so far is receiving a cool response. Such a scenario, however, would give Israel a measure of regional security during its negotiations with the Palestinians. It could also neutralize Iran, whose nuclear program and influence from Iraq to the Gaza Strip have perturbed the U.S., Israel and Arab regimes.
Dome is polished
Those questions will linger over Obama’s remarks at Cairo University, which sits in the middle of this dusty, polluted metropolis of 18 million people. Streets have been scoured for bombs and swept of trash. The university’s dome has been hand polished, and newly arrived potted plants and flowers have brightened surrounding neighborhoods -- quickly fixed facades for a nation whose regional stature has been slipping.
In a sense, Obama is coming to the political and cultural heart of the old Arab world, the capital where the dream of pan-Arabism flared briefly and died generations ago. Cairo is a snapshot of the dilemmas America faces throughout the region. President Hosni Mubarak is a close American ally who has stayed in power more than 27 years by arresting and silencing opponents.
When Mubarak took office, Obama was a political science major at Columbia University. Since then the domestic policies and visions of America’s friends, such as Mubarak, have been attacked by a new generation that wants change. What Obama says to the Egyptians will resonate with a wider Muslim audience angry about Washington’s support for Middle East governments that reject American values.
“Obama must distance himself from the practices and logics of Arab governments,” said Bahi Eddin Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. “If he does not express himself clearly on human rights, he might be misunderstood as a supporter of oppression.”
Times staff writer Richard Boudreaux in Jerusalem and Amro Hassan of The Times’ Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.