Tough Crowds Await Obama in Cairo and Beyond

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Has Obama been judged before he even reaches the podium?  I'm hoping not, but I expect that many in the Arab world will be skeptical of Obama's ability to offer them much of substance.  (Illustration by Arab Leftist.)
Finally, the event we've all been waiting for has nearly arrived! That's right, it's Obama's much-hyped "address to the Muslim world", to be delivered at noon tomorrow at Cairo University in the heart of the Egyptian capital.

What's that, you say? The Muslim world isn't interested in yet more rhetoric and false promises from yet another American president?

No matter; the Egyptians (never known for being a quiet bunch) have plenty to say about the visit, though Obama isn't likely to find much of it favorable.

In one of seven op-eds from around the Muslim world published in today's New York Times, Egyptian journalist Hossam el Hamalawy equates Obama's choice of venue with support for Hosni Mubarak's far-from-democratic regime:
President Obama should not have decided to come to Egypt. The visit is a clear endorsement of President Hosni Mubarak, the ailing 81-year-old dictator who has ruled with martial law, secret police and torture chambers. No words that Mr. Obama will say can change this perception that Americans are supporting a dictator with their more than $1 billion in annual aid.
Like others, El Hamalawy also laments the millions that Mubarak's government has spent in recent weeks to spruce up the city—an expense so blatantly made for Obama's benefit, and never for ordinary Egyptians'.

Fellow blogger Waleed Nassar describes the scene firsthand:
I work next to Cairo University and this area has transformed over night. The bumpy streets leading to the University are now as smooth as silk. Even buildings around the area have been given a fresh lawyer of paint, but not the whole building, just the side that faces to the street.
Obama's visit seems to be bringing out the ire of many in the Egyptian blogosphere—including some who are less diplomatically inclined, like the creator of the above image and other, more cutting, ones. Many Egyptians seem to be taking this opportunity to release frustrations long pent up under the Mubarak regime.

Though I'm not optimistic, for Obama's sake I hope he has something good to say tomorrow—his visit certainly seems to have gotten Egyptians' attention, even if the rest of the Muslim world doesn't tune in.

* * *

So what will Obama say in this much anticipated address? As is his trademark, he will likely seek to emphasize common ground and shared values. (Many of our differences are not differences at all; threats, where they exist, are mutual threats; etc.) Being conscious of the backlash resulting from his choice of venue, Obama will probably toss a few glancing criticisms at Mubarak—big enough to offer some cover, but too small to really embarrass the dictator on his home turf by calling him out for his undemocratic ways.

Barring any ace-up-the-sleeve surprise announcements, Obama is unlikely to impress many in the Muslim world, I expect. America's reputation in the world is unlikely to change overnight. Tony Karon, a journalist whose voice is one of the few consistently level-headed ones in the Middle East political debate, accurately explains why:
Let's not forget that President Bush, and Condi Rice, also went to the Middle East and made lofty speeches about freedom and about how the U.S. was not in conflict with Islam. It was not the rhetoric that failed them; it was the disconnect between the rhetoric and the policies. The same disconnect casts a shadow over Obama's speech: Despite his changing of the tone, he comes to Cairo as the head of a government that looks likely to keep Guantanamo open for some time yet (his arrival follows days after the news that a Yemeni inmate there committed suicide), while convicting some of its inmates not in courts of law, but in military tribunals—and limiting the probe into torture committed under the Bush Administration. He arrives as the Commander in Chief responsible for two occupations of Muslim countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, neither of which looks likely to end any time soon—and in Afghanistan, U.S. involvement looks likely to increase, and with it civilian casualties from U.S. air strikes. The substance of his Iran policy thus far seems to have not shifted substantially from that of Bush, and it remains to be seen just what he intends with Israel and the Palestinians: He has demanded that Israel freeze settlements, and Israel has said no. Israel's many friends in both parties on Capitol Hill are growing increasingly uneasy, and moving to restrain the Administration from publicly pressing Israel, even on the settlements issue.
As I wrote when Obama made his initial overtures to the Muslim world during his first days in office (see "Man in the Street: Opinions of Obama from the Muslim World"), the President's words, however eloquent, will never achieve the effect of concrete actions. Karon would seem to agree:
What he says in Cairo will make little difference to the way he's perceived in the Arab world and beyond; he'll be judged by what he does.
As an ardent Obama fan and deep-down idealist, I will, of course, be rooting against my predictions. I will be rooting for a real change of tone and perhaps even actions. But I fear that Obama, hemmed in by so many powerful influences at home and abroad, will have precious little of substance to offer the Muslim world tomorrow.

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