As the US president heads to the Middle East and Europe the focus of attention is on his long-promised address to the Muslim world, to be delivered in Cairo.
Obama faces challenge in Cairo
As the US president heads to the Middle East and Europe the focus of attention is on his long-promised address to the Muslim world, to be delivered in Cairo. How far he can go to undo the damage done by his predecessor remains to be seen. While a significant change in tone is already evident in the way Barack Obama approaches the region, Palestine remains the pivotal issue where in the past, hopes and promises have invariably been allowed to wither. As James Zogby noted in The National: "President Obama's election created hope among many Arabs and Muslims, but not all. A recent poll conducted in six Arab countries shows that in Morocco, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Obama is viewed quite favourably, and there is appreciation for the early steps he has taken to restore America's image and rebuild US-Arab relations. But in Egypt and Jordan, deep scepticism remains. "Therefore, when the president travels to Egypt, it is important to recognise that he will face a nation hardened in its negative view of the US and its role in the region, and unconvinced that this or any American president can or will change policy. "Most Egyptians still view the US unfavourably. Three-quarters give President Obama a negative job rating for his first three months in office, and the same percentage do not believe that he will be even-handed in dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict - the issue that almost 6 in 10 Egyptians say is the most critical challenge facing their region. "All this points to the steep hill that President Obama must climb as he struggles to convince a weary Egyptian and Arab public that he is committed to changing direction in the wake of the failed US leadership that preceded his ascent to the Oval Office." In a commentary for UPI, Martin Walker pointed out: "Egypt is a very problematic venue for a speech such as this, since it invites comparison with the important speech made in Cairo four years ago by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in which she noted that 'for 60 years, the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East - and we achieved neither.' "Egypt was a critical point for the ambitious policy of the Bush administration to steer the Arab world and Islam toward democracy and a greater regard for human rights. That policy, for all its good intentions, failed. Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, formerly an air force general, clamped down on the opposition party, jailed its leader Ayman Noor for three years on trumped-up charges and maintained his authoritarian rule. "So Obama faces a political challenge in Cairo, and not simply a cultural-religious opportunity. If he downplays human rights in Egypt, then for many of America's natural allies and supporters in the region the result will be disappointment and disillusion. If he merely spouts rhetoric on human rights with no follow-through on tough regimes, the disillusion will be extreme. If he follows through (as Bush did not) and turns rhetoric into hard and serious policy, he will undermine those regimes like Egypt and Saudi Arabia on which he must rely for diplomatic progress in the Middle East as a whole." Agence France-Presse reported: "Ahead of the visit, Egyptian security forces have rounded up hundreds of students at Cairo's Al-Azhar University, an ancient hub of Islamic scholarship that is co-hosting Obama's visit. " 'Security forces questioned around 300 foreign students at Al-Azhar last week for extra security checks ahead of Obama's visit,' another security official said. "Russia's foreign ministry said on Friday that more than 30 Russian students had been arrested in Cairo alongside nationals from Britain, Denmark, France, Tadjikistan and Uzbekistan last week. "Egyptian security forces broke into the students' dormitories at Al-Azhar and took them to an undisclosed location, the ministry said." The American Middle East historian, Juan Cole, wrote: "Most Muslims... tell pollsters that they do not hate the American way of life or our values, but rather Washington's policies. They will want to hear what concrete steps Obama will take to address the American wars, occupations and commitments that trouble them. "In order to make a genuine and lasting impact, Obama needs to tell the Muslim world that the long years in the desert for the Palestinian people are over, and that he will devote his energies to ensuring the establishment of a viable Palestinian state by the end of his first term. No one in the region believes in the so-called peace process any more, inasmuch as progress has been scant and the condition of the Palestinians has steadily worsened. "Obama needs to underline his commitment to withdraw US troops from Iraq on the timetable approved by the Iraqi parliament, that is, by the end of 2011. He needs to counter the statements of some of his generals casting doubt on that timetable. He should point out that he is acting in accordance with the wishes of an elected Arab parliament in Baghdad and their constituents." The Palestinian journalist, Daoud Kuttab, told The Washington Post: "Palestine has become the litmus test for US foreign policy because it has exposed US hypocrisy. Examples of the double standard include US bias toward Israel while it claims to be an honest broker, its push for 'democracy' while rejecting the results of Palestinian elections, and its silence on Israeli nuclear weapons while blasting Iranian nuclear efforts. "There are huge expectations for Obama. Arabs and Muslims appreciate and respect American values of democracy and human rights, but the disreputable actions of US soldiers, diplomats and civil servants have led many to question the US commitment to its stated values. Typical references to the Judeo-Christian heritage need to be replaced by an approach appealing to universal values based on human rights, self-determination, and opposition to occupation and dictatorships. Obama needs to find a way to apologise for the past and to convince people that he is planning to change course. No one expects the US president to totally change US policy, but people will welcome efforts to turn a new page based on fairness and trust." Finally, in Asia Times, Ramzy Baroud questioned the basic premise that Mr Obama should attempt to address "the Muslim world". "As media pundits and commentators began their drum-rolling in anticipation of US President Barack Obama's speech in Egypt on Thursday, very few paid attention to the fact that Arabs and Muslims are not so naive as to be wooed by mere rhetoric, but that they are significant players in their own affairs, capable of resistance and change. "To begin with, it's underhanded and foolish to speak of one Arab and Muslim polity, as if geography, class, language and politics, among many other factors, are irrelevant attributes which are easily overlooked. Why is there an insistence on addressing Arabs and Muslims as one unified body - that is, the so-called 'Muslim world' - that behaves according to specific rationale; predisposed to respond to the same stimuli? True, various groups within the Arab and Muslim collective share common history, language and religion, but even the same groups differ in historic interpretations, dialects and religious sects and frames of reference. "Why the reductionism? Is it true that a struggling North African immigrant in a French slum carries the same values, expectations and outlook on life as an wealthy, SUV-driving Arab in the Gulf? Does a poor Egyptian, grappling for recognition within a political body that has room for only the chosen few, relate to the world the same way as does a Malaysian Muslim with a wide range of opportunities, civic, economic and political? "Even within the same country, among the same people, adhering to the same religion, does the world mean the same, and will Obama's words in Egypt represent the unifying lexicon that will meet every Arab or a Muslim man or woman's aspirations?"