Arab News: Obama's extended hand

US President Barack Obama was due to arrive in Cairo this morning for a one- day visit. In addition to holding talks with President Hosni Mubarak at the Qobba Palace he will deliver a widely anticipated speech at Cairo University addressed to the Muslim world.

Obama travelled to Cairo from Saudi Arabia, where he met yesterday with King Abdullah.

Egyptian diplomats, speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity, say the visit is a clear indication that there is a possibility “to do business” with the US president, which was not the case with his predecessor. They are hoping that Obama will deliver on two key issues, Middle East peace and security in the Arab Gulf. According to one Washington- based Egyptian diplomat “Obama is interested to deliver on these two fronts simply because he finds this in the interest of the US.”

Inter-Arab consultations have dominated in recent days as Arab capitals coordinated to prepare a collective Arab message that President Mubarak and King Abdullah could deliver to the visiting US president. Arabs expect Obama to push Israel towards resuming peace talks with the Palestinians and to keep them informed of his talks with the Iranians and abreast of any future security arrangement in the Gulf.

On the eve of his departure to the Middle East Obama told the BBC he believed the US was “going to be able to get serious negotiations back on track” between Israel and the Palestinians. He added that it is “in the interest of the US that we have got two states living side by side in peace and security”.

While acknowledging criticism of his decision to reach out to the Muslim world he said he remains convinced this step, like the closure of Guantanamo, serves the interests of his nation. Obama said he was looking forward to overcoming “misapprehensions” on both sides, conceding that while there are no “silver bullets” to overcome problems there are “very real policy issues that have to be worked through”.

US sources in Cairo say Obama’s speech will steer clear of specific disagreements between the US and Muslim or Arab countries, particularly over democracy and human rights.

Security has been stepped up in Cairo in anticipation of the Obama visit. Invitations have been extended, with the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, the president of Cairo University, senior state officials, foreign diplomats, opposition figures, including representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood in parliament and intellectuals from all political backgrounds, among the invitees.

While welcoming Obama’s attempts to bridge the gap with the Muslim world many of those interviewed by the Weekly ahead of the visit maintain that his message of goodwill has raised expectations and must be followed by real policies if the rhetoric of rapprochement is not to be dismissed as a PR stunt.

“Politics is not about goodwill,” says political analyst Fahmy Howeidy. “It is now time for deeds.”

Howeidy’s remarks were echoed by Egyptian writer and academic Ezzedine Choukri Fishere, and by the executive director of the Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Ahmed Rehab.

Abdus Sattar Ghazali, executive editor of the online magazine American Muslim Perspective, summed it up: “Obama’s repeated messages of reconciliation may be seen as a media stunt if they are not followed by changes in his administration’s policies towards the Muslim world in general, and Afghanistan, Iraq and the Palestinian issue in particular.”

If a recent McClatchy/Ipsos poll of six Arab nations is anything to go by, Obama may find reaching out to Egyptians a difficult job. Just 35 per cent of Egyptian respondents in the poll said they had favourable views of Obama, a figure that dropped to 22 per cent when it came to the United States. A poll by Zogby International found that three quarters of Egyptians gave Obama a negative job rating after his first three months in office, with the same percentage saying that they do not believe that he will be evenhanded in dealing with the Arab- Israeli conflict.

While people may not question the sincerity of President Obama as a person, there is clearly a degree of public scepticism, perhaps even apathy, towards the extent to which he will be able to change the system over which he now presides.

Many analysts point out that the new US administration is facing a double onslaught, from the powerful Israeli lobby inside the US and from an extremist Israeli government, leaving the chance for a fair settlement to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict as slim as ever.

While Arab voices, in the street at least, are almost unanimous in calling for the US to end its dominating military presence in the region, uphold democracy and human rights in the Middle East and play an even-handed role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict if US rifts with the Arab world are ever to be mended, it is a fair settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that tops most people’s concerns.

Yet it is precisely the issues that matter most to people that interviewees speaking to the Weekly say have been the subject of only “cosmetic” change in US policies towards the Muslim world. Many mourned the thousands killed, and being killed, in Palestine, Iraq, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Nor has President Obama yet fulfilled his election pledges regarding a pullout from Iraq and the closure of the notorious detention camp in Guantanamo bay. Instead, says Ghazali, the US “plans to retain its forces [in Iraq] for at least a decade… send more US troops to Afghanistan… and has expanded the US detention facility at Bagram in Afghanistan to possibly accommodate 200-plus detainees”.

All of the above contributed to the opposition movement Kifaya’s decision to stage a sit-in to protest against Obama’s visit. The movement argues that a total withdrawal of US military forces from the region should be a prerequisite of any dialogue between the US and Arab and Muslim nations.

“The millions who will tune in today, while valuing improved engagement, believe they have been wronged and are horribly misunderstood,” notes Dalia Mogahed, executive director of the Gallup Centre for Muslim Studies and a member of President Obama’s advisory council on Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

On a more optimistic note, many Muslim scholars and preachers see today’s visit as an opportunity to remove stereotypes on both sides of the divide and improve the tarnished image of Islam.

“Obama needs to figure out how to explain to ordinary Americans, many of whom currently harbour anti- Muslim sentiments, how to clearly differentiate between the mainstream Muslim majority and the zealot extremist minority,” said Moez Masoud, a lecturer on Islam.

But other issues also need to be made clear. According to Gallup research only 19 per cent of Americans believe that to improve relations the US needs to change policies. Yet, as Mogahed points out, “from Casablanca to Kuala Lumpur people are hopeful that a new face in the White House who promises ‘a new way forward based on mutual interests and mutual respect’ will mean different policies, not just better rhetoric”.

Copyright © 2009 Al-Ahram Weekly