x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Obama's visit is dividing Egyptians

The Grand Mufti welcomes the US president's speech in Cairo but others see it as bolstering an unpopular government.

CAIRO // Since the May 8 announcement that the US president, Barack Obama, would deliver his long-awaited speech to the Islamic world in Egypt, the country has been gripped by "Obamamania". "'Obama Flu' is a new epidemic that hasn't appeared except in Egypt," wrote Ammar Ali Hassan, a political analyst, in the independent daily newspaper Al Masry Al-Youm last month. "This plague carries definite indicators that it's more lethal than bird and swine flu, because its doesn't attack the respiratory system, but the mind, heart and nerves." Mr Obama is scheduled to give his speech on Thursday in Cairo. The visit has been hailed by the state media as a victory for the Egyptian regime against those who criticise its human rights and democracy records and a boost to Egypt's role in the region. On the other hand, many human rights activists, bloggers and critics of the regime were upset by the choice of Cairo, as they saw it as a US retreat on its push for democracy in the region and unnecessary boost for the government of Hosni Mubarak, the president, at their expense. "We can't deny our shock from Obama's planned visit to Egypt," said Abdel Halim Qandil, the spokesman for Kefaya, an opposition group. "When he comes to Cairo, he will be Mubarak's, not the Egyptian people's, guest. This visit will have a negative impact on Obama's image, who is popular in Egypt." "Obama's choice for Egypt wasn't surprising, shocking or contrary to expectations," said Ayman Nour, a leading figure in the opposition. "Egypt, with its size, people, location and history, is bigger than its regime and what it stands for." "The speech targets the Muslim people, not their governments, and addressing them with a new language by a president who has Islamic family roots," Manar el Shorbagi, an assistant professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, said. "In other words, the pragmatic Obama wants to close the ideological page of his predecessor and start a new page based on interests. To do so he has to address Muslims' minds to reach their feelings and Cairo is the best place to do so, as Egypt is not only country of Al-Azhar and Islamic moderation, it's also where political Islam, both intellectually and militancy, originated," she said. The US Embassy in Cairo confirmed on its website yesterday that Mr Obama will deliver his speech at Cairo University. Exams for hundreds of thousands of university students will be postponed, Sahar el Mougy, an English literature professor said yesterday. "He won't see these students as they won't be allowed to go to their classes that day. What will he be told when he asks about the students?" Until the announcement was made many in Egypt debated the best venue for Mr Obama's speech. Al-Azhar, the world's second oldest surviving degree-granting university and the main centre of Sunni Islamic scholarship, was the first choice for many. Ali Gomaa, Egypt's grand mufti, said he would welcome Mr Obama's giving a speech from Al-Azhar and "any rapprochement between the US and the Islamic world, and that Obama's speech would encourage dialogue among religions". Yet the popular preacher Safwat Hegazy not only objected to a speech from Al-Azhar, but said he considers Mr Obama to be an "apostate", someone who renounced his Islamic faith. According to Islamic law, apostasy is punishable by death. Mr Obama was born to a Muslim father from Kenya, but was raised as a Christian. In Islam, children follow the father's religion. Others had said Mr Obama should address the people from Tahrir Square, the centre of Cairo's downtown. Gamal Fahmy, a satirist, suggested that the US president address the country from "my balcony" on the condition "that his speech would be an apology to humanity for America's imperialist crimes and to Arab people for the stolen Palestine and destroyed Iraq and for the Islamic world for tarnishing Islam by the CIA in the last decade". In the end, the prediction of Magdi Radi, the spokesman of the Egyptian cabinet, came true. He had said the speech would probably be delivered at Cairo University as "there might be logistical and security issues with delivering it from Al-Azhar". nmagd@thenational.ae