/ 4 June 2009

Obama Cairo speech aims to mend rift with Muslims

United States President Barack Obama was in Egypt on Thursday to deliver an address that will be crucial to his efforts to repair US ties with the Muslim world.

His speech is aimed at more than one billion Muslims across the world, but choosing Cairo underscores his focus on the Middle East, where he faces big foreign policy challenges.

Obama landed in Egypt from Saudi Arabia, where he discussed issues including the Arab-Israeli conflict. Obama was greeted at a palace in Cairo by President Hosni Mubarak, a US ally who has ruled Egypt since 1981 and kept a lid on opposition.

As he arrived in Egypt, the supreme leader of Washington’s arch foe in the region, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in a televised address that the US was ”deeply hated” in the Middle East and only action, not ”slogans”, could change that.

Obama wants to build a coalition of Muslim governments that will back his efforts to revive stalled Middle East peace talks and help the US curb Iran’s nuclear programme, which Tehran says is peaceful but the West says is to build bombs.

US officials told reporters on Wednesday that Obama would talk candidly and thoroughly about issues that had ”caused tensions between the US and the Muslim world”, and explain his policies toward Afghanistan and Iraq.

The address is part of a broader effort to rewrite US foreign policy that under Obama’s predecessor George Bush alienated allies and fuelled a wave of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world, although the president said this week it would not be an apology for the Bush administration’s policies.

Obama has vowed to chart a new path in US relations with Muslims, offering ties based on ”mutual interest and mutual respect”, after the former Bush administration’s campaign against terrorism, with its invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bush launched what he called a ”war on terror” after the September 11 attacks on the US by al-Qaeda, whose leader, Osama bin Laden, sought to upstage Obama when he was in Saudi Arabia at the start of his Middle East trip.

Bin Laden said in comments broadcast on Wednesday that Obama had planted the seeds of ”revenge and hatred” among Muslims with his support for a crackdown on Taliban strongholds in Pakistan.

Actions not words
Obama acknowledged this week that it would take more than a speech to reconcile the US and the Muslim world. The same view is held by many in the Muslim world.

”The nations of this part of the world … deeply hate America,” Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said.

”Even if they give sweet and beautiful [speeches] to the Muslim nation … that will not create change,” he said. ”Action is needed.”

A US pollster said on Wednesday that Obama faces a Muslim world that remains sceptical of US leadership but whose perception had recently warmed.

”Muslims around the world want very much to engage with the West, and with the US significantly, but want to engage as equal partners, instead of a relationship of paternalism,” Dalia Mogahed, executive director of the Gallup Centre for Muslim Studies, told Reuters in an interview.

Reflecting his determination to change the relationship, Obama gave his first presidential television interview to an Arab station and delivered a speech in Muslim Turkey in April.

But Muslims want specifics on how he plans to change US policy in the Muslim world that for years emphasised military support to mostly authoritarian rulers over development aid.

”If he stops these foolish policies [of Bush] and starts to build a new bridge between the US and the people, not the regimes of the Islamic world, it will be a good step,” said Essam el-Erian, a senior member of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

”It will take time to achieve or change the promises from speech to actions, but we are waiting,” he said.

How well Obama’s 45-minute speech is received will largely depend on what he says about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the issue the Muslim world cares most about. Muslims view the United States as uncritically pro-Israel.

”Egypt hopes that the speech will contain serious approaches to deal with the essence of the relations between the Islamic world and the US and this is the issue of peace in the Middle East,” Egypt’s presidential spokesperson, Suleiman Awad, said in remarks published before Obama’s arrival.

Many Muslims want him to explain his vision for Palestinian statehood and take a tougher line with Israel, which rebuffed his calls for freezing settlement expansion in the West Bank. — Reuters