x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

New dawn, or just another day?

Although the press was united on the quality of the oratory in Cairo by Barack Obama, the US president, opinions on the content varied.

Zakareya Fathi Hassan, left, and Mahmoud Abdel Meget read Al  Shorouk and Al Masry al Youm newspapers at a coffee shop in Cairo.
Zakareya Fathi Hassan, left, and Mahmoud Abdel Meget read Al Shorouk and Al Masry al Youm newspapers at a coffee shop in Cairo.

ABU DHABI // The day after Barack Obama's address in Egypt, newspapers were full of predictions of the dawning of a new era in Muslim-US relations, but also of questions about the American president's ability to make good on his ambitious promises. Thursday's speech to a packed auditorium at Cairo University was hailed by many as a turning point. Lebanon's Daily Star described it as an "event of global magnitude" while the Turkish daily Today's Zaman called it "historic".

"Obama's speech wasn't a lightweight declaration of idealistic principles; it represented a country, through its innovative leader, speaking quietly and carrying a big stick," the English-language Daily Star said in an editorial. "Remember the contrast we saw in Cairo this week, one between a new politics of hope and interdependence, and the old politics of despair and disappointment." In his hour-long speech, broadcast on 34 Arabic channels, Mr Obama called for a new beginning in US-Muslim relations "based upon mutual interest and mutual respect".

His words "exceeded the expectations of even the most hopeful," said an editorial in the Saudi-based Arab Times, but it added that the hard part was still to come. "Ahead lie long, tough negotiations, beset by mistrust and domestic political and personal risks," it said. "Obama's skills and sincerity will both be tested." Saudi Arabia's Al Yom newspaper, like many others in the region, called on the president to put his words into action.

"It is important that words become deeds and intentions become concrete practical decisions that prove the sincerity of the American orientation," it said. In Egypt, newspapers brimmed with praise for the speech, and front pages were dominated by pictures of Mr Obama at the podium, or touring the pyramids. "Obama the Awaited" was the front-page headline of the Egyptian daily Al Masry Al Youm while an editorial in the state-owned Al Gomhuria was headlined "Obama ended the clash of civilisations". "Beautiful words, now action," demanded the Egyptian Daily Rose Al Yousse in a bold red headline.

In an opinion piece headed "Obama cracks the code to reach Islam", the Financial Times's Roula Khalaf said the president had spoken with eloquence, authority and "a deep grasp of Muslim history and an understanding of Muslim grievances". But she also warned of the difficulties in transforming his vision into coherent policies. "Mr Obama called for a joint effort to create a world where extremists no longer threatened Americans, US troops returned home, Israelis and Palestinians lived in secure states of their own, and nuclear energy was used only for peaceful purposes," she wrote. "It is an ambitious vision that would transform the Middle East, but it raises expectations far beyond the US's ability to deliver."

As was inevitable in a speech addressing issues as sensitive and deeply rooted as the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, Iranian nuclear ambitions and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the speech drew sharply divergent reactions. His words on Israel and "Palestine", condemning settlements but confirming the US's "unbreakable" bond with Israel, drew the most attention. The front page of Lebanon's daily As-Safir newspaper, which leans towards Hizbollah, read: "Obama sweet-talks the Muslim world: Jews have a right to a homeland and our bond with Israel is unbreakable."

It argued that Mr Obama might have won hearts, but not minds, and said his words were "little more than a PR campaign". "His dominating charisma, his well-chosen words, his eloquence, his citations of divine books had been intertwined in the hearts of his audience over an historic hour, without reaching minds," the newspaper said. Others noted the lack of concrete solutions and new ideas. "Obama didn't offer any new initiative for ending the conflict between Israel and Palestine, an omission that frustrated many," said the independent pan-Arab daily Al Quds Al Arabi.

In Israel some were angered by comparisons of the Holocaust and Israeli aggression against the Palestinians. However, Haaretz's Gideon Levy described such criticisms as "redundant and unnecessary", adding that Mr Obama had emerged as "a true friend of Israel". "This is the thinking of a great leader, who walked with wisdom and sensitivity between the Holocaust and the Naqba, between Israelis and Palestinians, between Americans and Arabs, between Christians, Jews and Muslims."

The Jerusalem Post was less generous, saying Mr Obama's "moral equivalency was disconcerting". "We cringed when he associated the Palestinian struggle with the US civil rights movement and with the campaign for majority rule in South Africa," an editorial said. Most Iranian newspapers do not publish on Friday, but one that did, Al Alam, focused on the reaction of Ayatollah Khamenei, who said Mr Obama's "beautiful and sweet" words were not enough to overcome hatred of the US in the region.

American papers were among the president's fiercest critics. An editorial in The Wall Street Journal, entitled "Barack Hussein Bush", said Mr Obama had simply repackaged George W Bush's agenda and espoused "false moral equivalence". "What he mostly offered were artfully repackaged versions of themes President Bush sounded with his freedom agenda," the newspaper said. "He also couldn't resist his by now familiar moral self-indulgence."

In contrast, the New York Times said that unlike during Mr Bush's speeches, whose vision of the US had been a country "racked with fear and bent on vengeance", when Mr Obama spoke, "we recognised the United States". "After eight years of arrogance and bullying that has turned even close friends against the United States, it takes a strong president to acknowledge the mistakes of the past. And it takes a strong president to press himself and the world to do better."

In Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population, The Jakarta Post accused the president of confusing Muslims and Arabs. "President Barack Obama's speech felt more like a call to the Arab world which represents 20 per cent of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims, than the Muslim world in general," the paper said. "Aside from his universal message of brotherhood - Thursday's presentation in Cairo was a confusion of Arabism with Islam, the dangerous mixing of politics and religion."

Pakistan's The Nation described Mr Obama's words as "refreshingly different" from those of Mr Bush but questioned hypocrisies. "If he endorses the Quranic aphorism he quotes, that the murder of one innocent person is the murder of all mankind, he needs to explain the innocent civilians' deaths that the drone attacks were causing." lmorris@thenational.ae * Additional reporting by Hassan Hassan and agencies