x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

'The whole speech was very rich, like magic'

Many Egyptians from all walks of life interrupt their daily routines to tune into President Obama's speech.

Reacting to the Obama speech on television in Cairo are, from right, Amina Abdou Bayoumi, Somaya Abdel Fattah and Mona Hussein.
Reacting to the Obama speech on television in Cairo are, from right, Amina Abdou Bayoumi, Somaya Abdel Fattah and Mona Hussein.

CAIRO // "Oh my sweetheart!" shouted Amina Abdou Bayoumi, 73, as soon as she saw President Barack Obama take the stage at Cairo University. "May God bless you," she added as she stared at the television with her neighbour, Mohammed Abdel Fattah, 76, and his extended family, as they crammed into one room to watch Mr Obama's "new beginning" speech to the Muslim world.

Yesterday, none of these residents of Alf-Masakan, a middle-class neighbourhood east of Cairo, went to work or school. They also skipped noon prayers at the local mosque, just to listen to "Barack Hussein Obama", as they like to refer to the US president. Their enthusiasm before the speech turned into adoration afterward, despite most of them disagreeing with Mr Obama's description of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

"I'm not surprised about him equating Palestinians with Israelis, we all know how strong America's relationship is with Israel," said Omar Khaled Abdel Fattah, 19, a civil engineering student at Ain Shams University and the host's grandchild. "Obama portrayed a picture and pointed to certain things that they want us Muslims to see," retorted Atef Abdel Fattah, 50, an accountant. "The whole speech was very rich, like magic, he didn't miss any point," he continued. "Besides, his use of verses from the Quran was very touching for us, along with citing from Christianity and Judaism.

He charmed the Muslims and gave them what they wanted to hear, let's hope he will be able to back up the nice words with actions. I feel he is sincere, but the tasks and challenges are not easy," he added. The women in the room, while all were veiled, found Mr Obama's discussion of women's rights to be particularly moving. "What I really liked is when he said that Muslim women, in the States and everywhere, can have the choice to wear what they want and to decide their role in society," said Mona Hussein, 45, Atef Abdel Fattah's wife.

Somaya Abdel Fattah, 49, said she appreciated Mr Obama's emphasis on education and equality for women as well as the way he handled the issue of democracy. "I agree with him that democracy shouldn't be imposed from abroad," she said. "But I like that he added that democracy and human rights are not just American ideas, and that America will continue to speak out and support people who believe in them. What he said is a message to the whole Arab world; I hope their leaders got the message."

Mr Obama's handling of the Palestinian issue, while drawing criticism, perhaps less predictably was able to prompt moments of empathy with the Jewish state. "As much as his speech about suffering of Israeli people and mothers are alien to us, it didn't bother me," said Ms Bayoumi. "When you try to think about it logically, mothers are the same everywhere, and nobody wants to lose their children, and we already lost so many in the past 60 years, this is the key to peace and to go forward and above the bitterness of the past," she added.

For those present, the way that Mr Obama spoke about the issue of terrorism was also a welcome shift from the simplistic discourse of his predecessor, George W Bush, and one that may pay strategic dividends, according to Mohammed Abdel Fattah. "His talk about the majority of peaceful Muslims versus the minority of violent ones ... was meant to improve the image of Islam and Muslims which was tarnished by the acts of terrorists [on] September 11, [and was] meant to pull the rug under their feet, they can't attack him easily like they did with Bush, that he's against Muslims and Islam."

"Not a single American president spoke with such respect about our religion and to us before," he said. "I'm worried about him, he's not a prophet, but he's too good to be true." "God forbid anything bad happens to him," said the women in the room at the same time. Everyone smiled, saying in one voice: "Amen." nmagd@thenational.ae