What did President Obama say in his speech in Cairo?
Cairo, Egypt is the largest city in the Arab world, with a rich spiritual and political history. By appearing at Cairo’s very modern university, an appearance which was also sponsored by a noted Islamic university, Obama tried once again to paint himself as a man of the modern times, who both respects tradition and wants to move forward in his effort to win over the young people of the world. Let’s not forget that most of the Muslim world is college age or younger.
As for the issues addressed by President Barack Hussein Obama, they will be familiar to anyone who paid attention to Obama’s campaign. He didn’t break out any new policies, but at the same time, did not make any attempt to put a shine on any old Bush policies.
Obama started by delivering his stern belief against “violent extremism,” a term that manages to recognize his tolerance for religious extremism so long as said fanaticism doesn’t express itself violently. Having said that, Obama re expressed his intolerance for the Al Qaeda forces responsible for the 9/11 attacks and any other jihadists who may attack America. President Obama is not afraid of war, he simply wanted to express that war is not necessary in the face of non violent religious extremism.
President Obama then drew a clear distinction between the war in Afghanistan (calling it “a war of necessity”) and the war in Iraq (you guessed it, “a war of choice”), and stated clearly that he opposed the Iraq war from the very start of Bush’s saber rattling. President Obama reiterated that he is withdrawing American forces on a very similar timetable to that which he promised during his Presidential campaign.
The new President went on to remind the crowed gathered in a university courtyard that he has ended the policy of torture during interrogations and that he is in the process of closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Obama neglected to mention that closing Gitmo is one of his less popular policies state side.
While expressing his support for a Palestinian state, Obama also stated his opposition to further Israeli settlement in the West Bank. President Obama made it clear that Palestine should be a sovereign nation, then state that he believes Israel has a right to exist as well, speaking of the terror that has been thrust upon the Jewish people. Nonetheless, Obama remained firm in his opposition to the settlement policy of the new Israeli government, which is (by the way) probably the most conservative government in the nation’s young history.
Obama’s speech was much anticipated in Egypt and throughout the Middle East, as reports on Al-Jazeera could hardly contain their enthusiasm for direct attention from the new American leader.
There’s a growing downside to Obama’s appearance in the Middle East — there is certainly a good amount of confrontation waiting for President Obama on the issue of Israeli settlement. On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu announced to the world that he will not honor Presisdent Obama’s request to “halt further Israeli settlement in the West Bank”. On Wednesday, Israel’s interior minister said that settlement in the West Bank may actually accelerate. President Obama clearly lacks the sway necessary in the Middle East to create policy.
Later in his speech, Obama declared his support for Iranian nuclear power and opposition to Iranian nuclear weapons. The government of Egypt invited Iran’s ambassador to attend Obama’s speech, but it is unknown if the Irani ambassador did in fact attend the speech. Why did Egypt want an Iranian official there? Having seen a breakdown of Obama’s prepared speech, it is likely that those in power in Cairo wanted Iran to hear what Obama had to say about the Iranian nuclear program. Leaders in the Middle East are incredibly nervous about the possibility of a nuclear Iran.
Obama continued his balancing act, standing firmly between support for both democratic and reform tendencies. In an area of the world that is still struggling to find a balance between the old ways and the new, President Obama spoke on behalf of women’s rights in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Obama supported the aspirations of Muslim women, saying that some of them “wish to succeed in the secular sense, without lecturing from the American standpoint, which would not be helpful in Afghanistan.”
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has been in power for decades, welcomed Obama to Cairo in stunning fashion, and did speak with him, but was notably absent from this speech. His excuse? The recent death of a grandson, and his need for mourning. Mubarak was not the only political official in Cairo to abstain from attending, as most of Mubarak’s political opponents skipped the speech as well.
President Obama continued, promoting economic development and opportunity for the peoply of Egypt. He was cautious, and recognized that nation’s general fear of both modernization and globalization. Speaking on this issue, Obama declared: “There need not be contradiction between development and tradition. Countries like Japan and South Korea grew their economies while maintaining distinct cultures. The same is true for the astonishing progress within Muslim-majority countries from Kuala Lumpur to Dubai. In ancient times and in our times, Muslim communities have been at the forefront of innovation and education. This is important because no development strategy can be based only upon what comes out of the ground, nor can it be sustained while young people are out of work.”
A recently released Gallup poll found that 11 “essentially Islamic countries” in the Arab world now have favorable views of America, and that these favorable views have in fact risen since Barack Obama became president. Don’t get the wrong idea – most of these countries are not in full on America worship mode, and in fact most of the nations polled appear to be nervous about the transition of leadership. But “waiting and seeing” is a step up from burning our flag.
The good news is that it can only go up from the days of the Bush/Cheney Administration.
As the pollsters at Gallup have noted, “Throughout much of President George W. Bush’s second term, Gallup found U.S. approval ratings in many Arab countries in the single digits and among the lowest in the world.”
Bush ended his final trip to the Arab world as the target of a journalist’s shoes. This journalist quickly became a national hero in Irawq, the country that Bush was seeking to “liberate.” Not only was the shoe tosser a domestic hero, he became an internet meme, with many on the web professing their adoration for a simple act of (slightly) civil disobedience.
Not only did Obama not have to dodge a shoe, or any other piece of clothing, the crowd of 3,000 gathered in the Cairo University auditorium to hear him speak gave the new American president a standing ovation.
And that’s a great start.