x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Obama in the Middle East

As the US president arrived in Saudi Arabia at the beginning of his much anticipated Middle East tour, al Qa'eda was eager to try and grab the media's attention. The region's attention however is focused on Mr Obama's long-promised speech in Cairo through which the new America president hopes to heal the rift of recent years and open up a serious and honest dialogue.

As the US president arrived in Saudi Arabia at the beginning of his much anticipated Middle East tour, al Qa'eda was eager to try and grab the media's attention. "A double blast from al Qa'eda against Barack Obama shows the group is as worried as ever by the persuasive skills of the US president, who makes a speech to Muslims on Thursday," Reuters reported. "Al Qa'eda leader Osama bin Laden, in an audio recording aired on Wednesday by Al Jazeera television, said Obama had planted the seeds of 'revenge and hatred' towards the United States in the Muslim world and he warned Americans to prepare for the consequences. "A day earlier, the militant network's second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahri urged Egyptians not to be seduced by Obama's 'polished words' when he makes a major address in Cairo seeking to repair ties with the Muslim world." Much as al Qa'eda clearly wanted to direct the region's attention away from Mr Obama's Cairo speech, messages from both the group's leader and its deputy merely served to underline the anticipated significance of the US president's words. The Financial Times reported: "The US has invited leading critics of the Egyptian regime, including members of parliament from the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group, to attend President Barack Obama's much-awaited speech to the Muslim world in Cairo today. "The audience at Cairo University will include bloggers critical of the Egyptian government, Ayman Nour, the former presidential candidate whose imprisonment had strained relations between Cairo and the previous US administration, as well as independent deputies who belong to the banned Brotherhood, the country's largest opposition group. "The guest list marks an apparent US attempt to balance closer relations with Arab leaders with an outreach to civil society and opposition groups. Mr Obama has carefully refrained from criticising the Egyptian authorities even when pressed on their human rights record. And he arrives in Cairo after lavishing praise on King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia during a visit to Riyadh. " 'I imagine that the US embassy had something to do with the invitations,' said Saad Al Katatny, the head of the Brotherhood's parliamentary bloc. 'We have a fifth of the seats in parliament, and we are present in society. It is natural that we should be invited; it is ignoring us that is not natural.' "Brotherhood members of parliament are usually not asked to official events in Egypt and they are almost never interviewed on state media. The group is the main target of a government crackdown intended to keep it on the defensive through a revolving-door policy of arrests and releases of its members." The Christian Science Monitor noted: "Obama's rhetoric has generated high expectations. But his reception here will be heavily salted with scepticism. Arabs wonder whether US policies will really change on core issues of concern to the region: US withdrawal from Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and political reform of authoritarian governments. " 'Actions please, not words. I am tired of rhetoric,' says Nagwan Al Guneid, an employee of the French oil company Total in Sanaa, Yemen. 'This ever-promised change of Obama's should be solid and clear in his foreign policy.' "According to a recently released Arab public opinion poll by Middle East expert Shibley Telhami, of the University of Maryland, and polling firm Zogby International, 77 per cent of Arabs have an unfavorable attitude toward the US, which they rank second after Israel as the world's biggest threat. "Overall, only 45 per cent had a favorable view of Obama. Still, an average of 51 per cent in the six Arab countries polled expressed hopefulness about US Middle East policy. " 'This is not a love affair,' said Dr Telhami during a discussion of the findings at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. 'This is, "We're interested. We think we like this guy. We're prepared to listen."' "A separate poll by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland showed particular skepticism among Egyptians, 81 per cent of whom thought Obama's goals 'probably' or 'definitely' included imposing American culture on Muslim society. Seventy percent said he aimed to weaken and divide the Islamic world." In The New York Times, Roger Cohen wrote: "I hope President Obama has been reading James Baker in preparation for his speech Thursday to the Muslim world. It was in the time of the former secretary of state, two decades ago, that the United States last had a balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "Here's what Baker told the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee - the pro-Israel lobby - on May 22, 1989: 'For Israel, now is the time to lay aside, once and for all, the unrealistic vision of a Greater Israel.' "He continued: 'Israeli interests in the West Bank and Gaza, security and otherwise, can be accommodated in a settlement based on Resolution 242. Forswear annexation; stop settlement activity.' "Those words make startling but depressing reading: Little has changed in 20 years. After Bush 41 and Baker, we got Clinton's love affair with Yitzhak Rabin ('I had come to love him as I had rarely loved another man'); the disintegration of Oslo after Rabin's tragic assassination; and the Israel-can-do-no-wrong policy of Bush 43. "Balance - the credential no honest broker can forsake - vanished from American diplomacy. "I don't believe that's been good for Israel. The Jewish state needs to be challenged by its inseparable ally if it is to achieve the security it craves." Reporting from Iraq for The Washington Post, Anthony Shadid said: "The word 'freedom' is heard in the Arab world, often as sarcasm. In Iraq, the refrain goes: 'This is the freedom Bush brought?' The word 'justice,' a pillar of faith, is uttered much more often, framing attitudes from the Palestinian territories to Iraq. For those who feel they are without it, it becomes even more pronounced. " 'I am hoping to hear words of reconciliation,' Michel Kilo said of Obama's speech. A writer and activist in Damascus, Syria, he was freed last month after three years in prison on charges of weakening national morale. 'I want to hear the word "justice".' "The blacks and whites of US policy always seem to give way to a far greater ambiguity in the region. Lies by a generation of authoritarian Arab leaders to their people have given many a healthy scepticism of any public statement, whatever the source. Footnotes of US history have become seminal events in the Muslim world. A half-century on, few people are unaware of the US role in 1953 in helping overthrow Mohammad Mossadegh, the nationalist prime minister in Iran. Many blame the US resupply of Israel in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war for delivering Israel a decisive advantage. Even in Iraq, the narrative before 2003 was rarely the United States against President Saddam Hussein, who enjoyed US support during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. To many Iraqis, it was them against Hussein and the Americans, who backed devastating UN sanctions. In their view, he was overthrown only when he was no longer useful. " 'They understand justice in the United States, but they've never applied it here,' said Sundus Yahya, a clerk at women's clothing store in the Baghdad neighbourhood of Karrada. " 'At least he has to apologise,' said her colleague, Ghofraan Dhiaa. 'He can either apologise himself or on the behalf of his predecessors. But there needs to be recognition.' "

pwoodward@thenational.ae