x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Muslims expect more than words of goodwill

The US president is to deliver a much-anticipated speech in Cairo tomorrow that will seek to repair relations with the Muslim world.

CAIRO // In his nearly five short months in office, he has hugged his way across Turkey and Europe, bestowed an iPod upon Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and given throngs of people around the world a reason to think that perhaps politics and politicians are not really so feckless after all. Yet how different is Barack Hussein Obama? What will happen when the supernova Obama meets the black hole of recent US relations with the Arab-Muslim world?

The answers to these questions, which have engrossed the region since Mr Obama was sworn in as US president in January, are expected to become clearer tomorrow when he delivers an eagerly awaited address to the Muslim world from a university campus here in the Egyptian capital. How much clearer, though, is hardly certain. Hopes are high for some here. Fake silver-and-brass plaques bearing an image of a pharaoh and the legend, "Obama: New Tutankhamon of the World", were selling briskly at the Welcome Gift Store in Cairo's Soltan Parkok neighbourhood yesterday.

Nevertheless, speculation that Mr Obama would unveil a detailed, comprehensive Middle East peace plan in Cairo forced the White House two weeks ago to demur, saying announcing such a plan was "never the intention" of the speech. It ratcheted down expectations even further last week when Denis McDonough, an aide in the White House's National Security Council, said the hour-long address, promised during last year's presidential campaign, was simply part of Mr Obama's continuing effort to "change the conversation with our Muslim and Arab friends".

Yet it is precisely "conversation" and similar words that Arab Muslims are fed up with, said analysts and others; they want the gap between US rhetoric and policy narrowed with actions, and unless Mr Obama can do it - if not in Cairo, then soon - he is doomed to disappoint. "This is a region that has welcomed the change in atmospherics in Washington. Still, it's a region that's allergic to just process and just language. People are looking for a sense of justice," said Alistair Crooke, director of the Beirut-based Conflicts Forum and a former European negotiator with Islamic groups.

"Enough already with the 'we love and respect the Arab and Muslim world' speech," said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator at the state department and the author of The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace. "The president has given that speech three times already - first in his interview with Al Arabiya, then in his Nowruz greeting to the Iranians and finally in his speech in Ankara to the Turkish parliament.

"This speech has got to be more substantive, and he should not give it unless he's prepared to get real and serious and to be extremely tough with the Arabs and Israelis," Mr Miller said. "He should be a breaker of icons and a breaker of illusions in a region that is filled with them." It has not all been ethereal talk. Mr Obama has promised to close the detention centre at Guantanamo, put a timeline on a US troop withdrawal from Iraq and publicly confronted Israel on its failed promise to stop settlement growth.

But as he meets Saudi leaders in Riyadh today before travelling to Cairo tomorrow, Mr Obama appears keenly aware that his biography gives him opportunities to foster relations with the Muslim world that none of his predecessors have ever enjoyed. Certainly, the president - son of a US woman and a Kenyan man with an Arabic middle name and a Muslim grandfather, who spent four years of his childhood in Indonesia - knows how to brandish his life story for rhetorical advantage.

In his speech to Turkey's legislature, he said many Americans had Muslims in their families or had lived in a Muslim-majority country. "I know," he said, "because I am one of them." Still, listening to Mr Obama tomorrow in Cairo University's domed reception hall may prove exasperating. Analysts said the ingredients for a muddle hang over this keenly anticipated speech like a dark cloud. For one thing, the president's address is directed to the "Muslim world", not simply to Muslims of the Arab Middle East. Mr Obama risks slighting one-fifth of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims by offering too few details of his plans for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict and tensions with Iran and upsetting the remaining four-fifths by offering too many.

The cultural, social, ethnic and even religious diversity of "Muslim world" defies sound-bite generalisation and produces bad policy, said Parag Khanna, director of the Global Governance Initiative at the New American Foundation, based in Washington. "When you're speaking to everyone and no one at the same time, it's basically pointless. We should be speaking to nations and societies, which is what diplomacy is all about," Mr Khanna said.

"You treat Pakistan one way, Turkey another way, Egypt still another way. The alternative is a recipe for immediate self-contradiction, and simply reminds audiences of what the Bush administration did." In ways that cannot fail but escape the 44th president, history also will loom heavily when he takes the podium here tomorrow. Exactly 32 years earlier - June 4 1967 - was the last full day of calm before the Middle East map was changed utterly.

Starting early the following day, Israel destroyed the armed forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan in 132 hours. It conquered 109,000 square km expanded 3½times its original size and brought nearly one million Palestinians under military rule, a legacy of occupation and subsequent rebellion that shapes the Middle East to this day. Since then, "a return to 1967 borders" has become an oft-repeated mantra of those calling for a return to the pre-war status quo.

"The president can't avoid it," said Fares Braizat, a senior fellow at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. "He must make it clear that Israel will no longer be able to continue processing the process instead of processing the peace." cnelson@thenational.ae