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Speak to those who simply hope for human dignity

An open letter to President Barack Obama from The National's Cairo correspondent Matt Bradley.

To: Barack Obama President of the United States

From: Matt Bradley Foreign Correspondent, Cairo

I know you are getting a lot of advice from a lot of very smart people. I don't claim to be one them, but as an American living in the Middle East, there are a few things I hope you'll keep in mind before you make your speech to the Muslim world tomorrow. It has been stated, perhaps ad nauseam, that the fifth of the world's population who call themselves Muslims are waiting for more than words from you. They want to see actions and concrete policies that prove you are indeed different from your predecessor.

It will be hard to give your audience more than words from a podium. You will not be able to wave a conductor's wand, like some sort of grand foreign policy maestro, to remove American troops from Iraq or extract Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Words are all you will have to offer, and despite your best efforts, you have not yet shown that your words can change the world. But there are certain notes that, if you strike them correctly, may remind all of us in this sceptical and deeply pessimistic region that words still matter.

I want to begin by dismissing this tired notion of a "clash of civilisations" about which we keep hearing so much. There is nothing inevitable about the conflicts we see today, and it is my conviction that the citizens of this world are more united by shared values than ever before. In my experience, the vast majority of Egyptians think of the American people as very similar to themselves. They look on America's political system and culture with admiration. They think of Americans as a fundamentally peaceful people who have been woefully misled.

This fact seems lost on many Americans, many of whom look at the Muslim world and see only gratuitous hatred staring back at them. While these difficult economic times have turned the American dream into a punchline in the US, that dream actually remains alive and well here. While many Muslims despise America's politics, they also consider the US to be a place where a person of intelligence, diligence and ambition can make a good and honest life for himself.

Given the contrasts between the Egyptian experience and the American experience, it is easy to see why. In America, the images we see of the Muslim world tend to convey war and radicalism. But for most of the people who live in majority Muslim nations, the real problems are far less violent and far more insidious. The majority of the people you will address today live in countries where they can expect an education, but not a job. Many here are unemployed or underemployed. They are just scraping by.

They live in societies that have been so tested by political uncertainty and instability, they have retreated into traditionalism and conservatism. Many of them are "protected" by a vast security apparatus that often seems more concerned with insulating the rich and powerful from the weak and vulnerable. They are governed by leaders who are so distant, they have come to expect only deafness and corruption. They live in a region that swirls with political intrigue, where mysterious plans are hatched and foiled and where suspicion and paranoia are the political rule, rather than the exception.

The fact remains that the systems and circumstances that have robbed this region of so much human potential have been shaped, both directly and indirectly, by America's foreign policy ambitions. These are policies that have anointed autocrats and blessed authoritarianism, all in the name of peace and democracy. In short, many Egyptians feel disenfranchised. They lack voice, they lack agency and they lack efficacy. When taken together, there is a word for all of these things that people in Egypt, and much of the Muslim world, feel they lack: dignity. It is a personal trait that Americans seem to take for granted. But this universal and enduring need for dignity is also a powerful premise on which you can build a new sort of relationship between America and the Muslim world.

Few expect your speech to solve the most substantial, most violent problems. But many are waiting to hear that you will not barter the opportunities and identities of today's Muslims for tomorrow's American foreign policy. You can pledge to end a policy model that imposes systems and ideas on entire populations of people, all while insisting that such paternalism serves a greater good. So please, talk about Israel and the Palestinians. Discuss Iraq and Afghanistan. But whatever path you choose to take on these issues, do not ignore the individual human dignity - both in your words and in your actions - for which so many Egyptians and Muslims throughout the world yearn. If you neglect this point, you will have missed the true rupture that separates the hearts and minds of the Muslim world from those of the Americans you represent.

I wish you the best of luck.


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