Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo

Press review- Week from June 1 to 5, 2009

On Wednesday, President Obama began his Middle Eastern « tour », starting with Riyadh before going to Cairo for a speech « to the Muslim peoples.” The new American president’s task is to end the tensions and misunderstandings between Muslims and Americans that have punctuated the mandates of G. W Bush. As a Christian, son of a Kenyan Muslim, Obama was expected to recreate a link between the United States and the Arabs.

A trip to end tensions

Le Figaro highlights that Obama never believed in the theory of clash of civilizations. That is what he had said in his inaugural speech and in an interview with Al-Arabia as well as in the Turkish Parliament in April. According to the French newspaper, Obama trying to appease the “hate of the West” in the Middle East, particularly in the youth to whom he primarily addressed his speech. “Obama wants to convince the Muslim populations that America has changed, he believes that Islamic terrorism is a crucial issue for national security, which goes far beyond the issue of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, » says a diplomat in Le Figaro.
« The United States and the Western world must learn about Islam. Moreover, if we count the number of American Muslims, we see that the United States is one of the largest Muslim countries on the planet » had recently told the American president in an interview on French TV channel Canal +. Indeed, says the Turkish daily Hurriyet, the Pew Research Center came to the conclusion that Muslims represent 0.6% of the adult population of the United States that is to say 1.4 million Muslims aged of more than 18 years.

A first step with the Saudi ally

If Obama chose the University of Cairo, which welcame him with the participation of the Islamic University Al-Azhar, to make his speech to Muslim populations, it is in Saudi Arabia that began his Middle Eastern trip. Both States are crucial, Le Figaro analysis. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the pillars of the regional balance and they are both involved in Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives. The American president wanted to ask the Saudis to commit themselves to revive the Israeli-Arab negotiations and introduce a form of political thaw.
However, even before the arrival of the President in Riyadh, the New York Times estimated that the Arab states would be reluctant to make further sacrifices while many concessions were made during the drafting of the Arab peace initiative adopted in Beirut in 2002.
According to Le Figaro, the President relies on the strategic positioning of its Saudi ally. Country of 15 among the 19 hijackers of 9/11, alarmed by the rise of Iran, « Saudis see Obama era as a new opportunity after the disaster of the Bush era, which has bogged down in Iraq and allowed Iranian Shiites gain power throughout the Muslim world » said a diplomat. The Saudis have asked Obama to establish a more demanding schedule on the management of the Iranian nuclear issue, as did Netanyahu in Washington. Iraq -whose Shi’ite majority government is not appreciated by Saudi Arabia- and Pakistan have been discussed. The White House wants Riyadh to use its influence on the opponent Nawaz Sharif to calm the situation.
The Arab News points out that the Saudi King Abdullah reiterated that the United States and Saudi Arabia were friends and allies since the time of the King Abdul Aziz and President Roosevelt. The newspaper reported that Al Qaeda has condemned the visit in a video. Nevertheless, said the Arab News, despite a certain rise of the « Obamania » in the Middle East, a majority of people remain cautious on the ability of the president to change an “euphoric message » into action. This is also the message delivered by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on television, saying that only actions could change something to the hatred felt by the Middle East for the United States, the Times reveals.

Obama’s visit to Egypt

In Cairo, the U.S. president met with Egyptian President Mubarak, who he « does not consider as an authoritarian leader » as he reportedly told the BBC. Al Ahram weekly gives a critical analysis of the choice of Cairo as a major step in the journey. Indeed, the Egyptian daily said that the choice of Cairo by Obama to give his speech to the Muslim world has satisfied the authorities as it confirms the position of Cairo as a “leader” capital of the Arab and Muslim world. However, associations for the protection of human rights and democracy do not share this satisfaction because, according to them, this choice reinforces an authoritarian regime and blurs the American message on democratization while the subject is still at the heart of US-Egyptian relations.

In La Libre Belgique, Ahmed Maher, former Egyptian ambassador in Washington from 1992 to 1999 who became then foreign minister from 2001 to 2003 explains that the new U.S. policy can be translated into: « I am ready to understand you. » To Mr. Maher, B. Obama does not have any exceptional message to deliver but expects « an intra-Palestinian unity and more generally an Arab unity » to act. Elshobaki Amr, the Political and Strategic Studies Center of al-Ahram said that if the American discourse is changing with Obama, « Arabs should also change, give up their stasis to become a full partner and thus give the American new policy a chance to succeed. »

A new context of tense US-Israeli relationship

This Middle Eastern tour is marked by a cooling of US-Israeli relations. Published by Haaretzon the day of Obama’s speech in Cairo,a cartoon showing Barack Obama wearing an Arab headdress with the caption « Barack Hussein Obama the Anti-Semitic Jews hater” embodies the recent tension between Obama Administration and Israel. Indeed, as Le Figaro points out, Netanyahu’s government has engaged in a power struggle with Washington and it is the first time that Israeli ministers dare to openly criticize their American ally.

Newspapers have recently indicated that Israeli leaders « suspect » now the American president to have « pro-Palestinian » tendencies. While Obama called for the freezing of settlements, the Israeli transport minister, Israel Katz, who acts as spokesman for Netanyahu, said last Sunday that « this government will not in any way allow the legal settlements to be frozen in Judea and Samaria (West Bank) ». But Barack Obama now calls for a freeze of all colonies without distinguishing between legal and illegal colonies. Another subject of contention: Israeli officials accuse Barack Obama of calling into question the commitments made by George Bush in a letter to Ariel Sharon in 2004 when GW Bush believed that « it would be unrealistic to expect that Israel evacuates the major settlement blocs under a peace agreement with Palestinians.” Some Israelis now believe that the United-States have de facto accepted the idea of a future annexation of these large settlements, reveals Le Figaro.
However, in his Cairo speech, Obama said that the US-Israeli relationship was « unalterable.”

Obama’s expected speech in Cairo

Around key formulas such as the promotion of a « new beginning between Muslims and the United States » and the “end of the cycle of distrust and discord”, the American president has addressed key issues: on the fight against extremism, Obama recalled that the United States would face not Islam but extremisms.
On Palestine, the President reiterated his support for the creation of a Palestinian state and the freeze of Israeli settlements. Barack Obama declared that « the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. »
Regarding Afghanistan, Barack Obama has confirmed that the United States would not establish bases but will act through assistance to displaced persons and economic reconstruction of the country.
The President also spoke on the nuclear issue in the Middle East. In his intervention, he recalled the right to peaceful nuclear power and the importance of compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Other key topics of his speech were the importance of religious freedom and women’s education. « A woman who is not given an access to education is a woman who is not given the right to equality » he insisted.
Finally, Obama announced the launch of partnerships and student exchanges between the Middle East and the United States, Le Figaro explains.

However, if the majority of feedbacks has been positive, some have criticized the lack of initiatives launched by B. Obama. « I feel this speech is historic, but it adds nothing new » regretted Hasim Fouad, a reporter for the Egyptian newspaper Al Dustour.
Hurriyet reported that Abdullah Gul, the Turkish President and Nabil Abu Rdainah, spokesman for Palestinian President saw this speech as historical, realistic and honest, while the Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum noted contradictions. The spokesman for the Iraqi government has approved the references to the Koran made by Obama. Eric Goldstein of Human Rights Watch regretted that the President was not specific enough on issues of democracy in the Middle East while Ian O. Lesser, the U.S. Marshall Plan identified an important feature: if the speech has changed the image of America in Arab public opinions,it has changed the image of America European public opinions have.

The Israeli daily Haaretz seems to go further: Obama would have begun a new chapter of trilateral relations between the United States, Israel and the Arab world. For the daily, the irregular triangle of this relationship was replaced by an isosceles triangle by putting on an equal footing the Arabs and Israel. Haaretz said that « the ball is in the camp of Israel »: first, the American president was clear about the forthcoming establishment of a Palestinian state, secondly, he gave directions to Israel on the cessation of settlements and thirdly, he requested the opening of Gaza border to supplies.

The Prime Minister of Israel considered as « unreasonable » the U.S. demand for a complete freeze of Israeli settlements in the West Bank while Labor member Ophir Pines believed that Israel could « be the major beneficiary of this American policy change” Le Figaro reported. The EU via Hans-Gert Pöttering praised the « courage » of Obama, encouraging Israel to cooperate, while the United Nations hopes that a « new era » between the United States and the Muslim world will start.

If Obama’s speech is an historical event, only its translation into concrete actions will give it its dimension.