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Obama's Cairo speech hailed as repairing relations with the Muslim World
The World Today (Australia)
June 5, 2009

By Kim Landers
Transcript of Radio report

BARACK OBAMA: As-salaam alaikum. (Applause and cheering)

KIM LANDERS: From the start of this carefully balanced speech, it was clear President Barack Obama was trying to set a new tone and deliver a new message.

His audience stretched from the thousands of people at the university in Cairo, to nations around the world and to Muslim Americans like Amina Sharif and Ahmed Rehab.

AMINA SHARIF: He has said that he's going to establish mutual respect between the Muslim and Arab majority countries and America, and I think he really took a huge step, a huge leap in that direction today.

AHMED REHAB: I thought President Obama hit all the right points. It was a comprehensive speech. It was very emphatic yet humble.

KIM LANDERS: Barack Obama's address was designed to change perceptions of the United States in the Middle East and beyond.

The United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has expressed hope it'll help reignite the Middle East peace process.

The European Union's foreign policy chief Javier Solana has hailed it as a "remarkable speech" that quote, "without a doubt is going to open a new page in relations with the Arab-Muslim world."

Israel says it hopes the speech will spark quote "a new kind of reconciliation" with the Arab world.

The Gaza Strip's Hamas rulers have called for the President's words to be followed by action.

A spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas calls the speech quote "a good start and an important step towards a new American policy."

But a Hezbollah official says it signals no real shift in US policy, despite the conciliatory tone.

Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He says the speech delivered a bit of what he calls "tough love for everyone".

MICHAEL O'HANLON: And I thought he was emphatic in insisting that the Holocaust never be denied; that all peoples in the Middle East have a right to freedom and also to a decent life.

And so I really thought it was fine. If anything, to me it was a little bit predictable, given what we knew that the President would want to say, and what he's been representing by his sheer candidacy and then presidency so far, as a black American with certain kinds of Muslim-related ties in his background.

So I think that's about the biggest criticism I could have - it was sort of a workman-like speech. But I didn't hear any tones that were objectionable myself.

KIM LANDERS: Rami Khouri is the editor of the "Daily Star" newspaper in Lebanon.

RAMI KHOURI: I think putting the Israelis and the Palestinians squarely on the same level was a significant step for American policy. It's a symbolic step, but I think the fact that he's doing it is important, and he's reiterating that he's going to be personally committed to pushing this peacemaking process forward. I think that's interesting.

The other thing I found interesting was he more or less was starting a piece of dialogue if not a negotiation with Hamas, by addressing Hamas and talking about what they need to do. I think that was pretty significant. All the other stuff was repeating known positions.

KIM LANDERS: So will President Barack Obama's speech help to establish a new relationship between the United States and the Muslim world?

Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: He I think changed the discourse a lot on a number of issues, including militant extremism. We didn't hear the term "terrorism". We heard him reiterate the intent to pull out of Iraq. It's a very popular issue in the Arab world.

He talked about Iraq for the Iraqis - we want Iraqis as partners, not as patron. Very important language, I think, and you get a lot of applause for that.

He addressed the Israeli-Palestinian issue. It's a central issue; a lot of people focused on it, particularly in Cairo. He was tough on both sides. He put some new language particularly on the settlements. I'm not sure how this will be received in the Arab world. I think in general, the perception will be that I think he said many positive things.

But expectations were so high - maybe too high. I think that was part of the problem for this speech, is that the raised expectations maybe were too high and I fear an outcome where people will say, I've heard this before, even though he said a lot of different things.

KIM LANDERS: Barack Obama may have stretched out a hand to the Muslim world, but in the end his speech is only words and it needs to be followed up by policy.

Copyright © 2009 The World Today

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