x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

A speech that might make the difference

I was filled with a heightened sense of expectation as my cameraman and I zoomed through the empty roads towards Cairo University on Thursday; feelings I didn't realise I had been harbouring for weeks, since we first heard Obama was coming to Cairo.

The streets were eerily clean and quiet. It didn't feel like the same city we had put to bed the night before. I was filled with a heightened sense of expectation as my cameraman and I zoomed through the empty roads towards Cairo University on Thursday; feelings I didn't realise I had been harbouring for weeks, since we first heard Obama was coming to Cairo. As a reporter, I was so focused on getting the facts, covering the city's reaction to his visit, and co-ordinating dreaded press passes for the actual event, that I hadn't stopped to think: "He really is coming!"

It would be a lie, stupid really, to say that it didn't matter that the president of the United States was coming to make a historic tour of the region and address the world's 1.5 billion Muslims from Cairo. For weeks, Cairenes had been arguing about the pros and cons of choosing Egypt as his podium. Most were excited, proud - Egypt remains the heart, the navel, and any other centralised body part of the Islamic world, they would say. People still see us as a force in the Middle East.

Others, mainly dissidents and human rights workers, were unhappy with the choice - Obama's visit gives legitimacy, they say, to a regime that suffocates press freedom, democracy, and any sort of opposition. And then, of course, they ask: What should he utter that would "make a difference"? Why does he want to talk to us? I don't know what it looked like on TV, but at almost exactly 1pm, in the packed hall people suddenly stood up and started clapping.

Being on the second level we couldn't see right away that it was applause for Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state. As we caught a glimpse of her, the announcer said something else but that got lost in the noise. Then suddenly the applause grew stronger. And there he was - on the right hand corner of the stage, the tall, slim figure of Barack Hussein Obama. The hall was made up of three levels. The bottom level was reserved for VIPs: religious leaders, politicians, Egyptian MPs, diplomats, some Egyptian dissidents, and ambassadors.

On the second tier, were the media - regional, national and international. I heard languages from all over the world, from Japanese, to Turkish to French and Spanish. Finally, the media section was flanked on right and left by students selected by the University faculty. Speaking emotionally and in his signature articulate tone, Obama's speech wasn't particularly surprising. It tackled the issues everyone expected: Israel-Palestine, democracy, and extending an invitation of collaboration on issues of extremism.

Each person had their own level of satisfaction with what was said depending on their politics and background, but overall, people seemed open and willing to listen. The students were the loudest of the crowd, cheering wildly when he addressed the audience with the Islamic greeting of peace, Assalamu alaikum. As he finished they chanted "Obama", and in the middle an enthusiastic young man shouted, "I love you!" to which Obama replied: "Thank you."

The energy in the room was undeniable, even when Obama treaded on the prickly topic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He peppered his speech with verses from the Quran, pronouncing a couple of Arabic words wrongly, but others well. I left in a hurry needing to call in my story to my office. There wasn't time to do a big thought reflection on the speech. There will come later, especially as people use his speech as a reference point for his future actions. But one quote from a Cairo student I interviewed, Shahenda El-Bahgoury, stuck in my mind. It might prove to be Obama's saving grace in this region. When I asked for her reaction, she told me: "He was seriously humble."

Perhaps that is the change people can and want to believe in. Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo