x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Obama's words soared but scepticism outweighs support in region

In the Middle East, reaction to US President Barrack Obama's speech on the region was met with more scepticism than support

Was it just "repackaged rhetoric" or did it signal a genuine commitment by Washington to align its interests with the drive for democracy in the Arab world?

The US president Barack Obama's speech embracing the uprisings sweeping the Middle East drew a mixed response across the region yesterday, and scepticism mostly outweighed support.

By trying to appeal to everyone, Mr Obama has disappointed everyone, one analyst said.

The US president pledged to oppose violent repression, and to uphold universal rights, including free speech, freedom of assembly and of religion.

But many Arabs said they would wait to see if his stirring declaration that "tyrants will fall" is followed by concrete action.

His soaring words mostly failed to overcome widespread disillusionment stemming from a similar keynote speech in Cairo two years ago when he also voiced support for democratic change and to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian issue. He delivered on neither front.

Moreover, he was slow to respond to the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, where recently ousted autocratic leaders were longtime US allies.

The Arab Spring, now in its sixth month, has also failed to bring change in Yemen, Bahrain, Syria or Libya. For many in the Middle East, the US has been merely a spectator of the home-grown uprisings.

"Obama gave a speech? Really? As if I care," an Egyptian activist, Hossam el Hamalawy, wrote on Twitter.

Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo University, said: "We have heard a lot of beautiful speeches before and we don't know if he can deliver this time."

In his widely read column yesterday, Abdelbari Atwan, the editor of the London-based pan-Arab daily al-Quds al-Arabi, wrote that US support for the Middle East revolutions was strictly confined to Arab republics while he studiously avoided mention of the Gulf monarchies. Mr Obama's speech was "repackaged rhetoric", Mr Atwan wrote.

Even so, there was surprise that Mr Obama publicly rebuked Bahrain, a key ally that has crushed a Shiite-led protest movement with the support of troops from Saudi Arabia.

"Mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain's citizens and will not make legitimate calls for reform go away," Mr Obama said.

Activists in Bahrain were delighted. There was no immediate response from Bahraini government and Bahrain TV did not broadcast Mr Obama's speech live, although many watched it on al Jazeera and al Arabiya.

The Bahraini royal family, however, could take some solace from Mr Obama's unsubstantiated assertion that Iran had tried to take advantage of the turmoil in the kingdom, analysts said.

Syrian activists, meanwhile, were encouraged by the US president's robust warning to the Syrian president, Bashar al Assad, whose regime has responded to a popular revolt by killing more than 850 people.

Mr Obama said: "The Syrian people have shown their courage in demanding a transition to democracy. President Assad has a choice: he can lead that transition or get out of the way."

Some Syrians said they would have preferred if the US president had demanded the outright departure of the regime, which they believe is beyond reform.

Damascus responded furiously to Mr Obama's speech. Syria's official news agency said it amounted to "incitement".

Libyan rebels generally welcomed the US president's address but said they would have preferred if he had conferred formal recognition on their government, the National Transitional Council.

Mr Obama promised debt reduction to Egypt and other aid for fledgling Egyptian and Tunisian democracies. Yet some analysts said US aid and debt relief will have strings attached pertaining to foreign policy.

Washington's foreign policy goals include isolating Iran, ensuring continued Gulf Arab oil supplies and promoting Arab ties with Israel.

"What Obama didn't talk about: aid conditionally," wrote Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Centre in Qatar on Twitter. "My prediction on Obama's speech: Arab leaders won't like it much. Arab reformers won't like it much. This is the Obama style. Try to please everyone and end up disappointing everyone."

mtheodoulou@thenational.ae