Guarded Optimism in the Arab World

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President Barack Obama during his speech at the Cairo University. This image is in the public domain.

Towards Obama’s Call for a “New Beginning between the United States and Muslims” in Cairo

June 22, 2009
By Layla Al-Zubaidi & Doreen Khoury
A review of Arab journalists’ responses by Layla Al-Zubaidi & Doreen Khoury

President Barack Obama’s call for a "new beginning between the United States and the Muslims" on June 4th 2009 resonated deeply throughout much of the Middle East, drawing both praise and criticism. The speech held at Cairo University and co-sponsored by Azhar University, the main centre of Sunni Islamic learning in the world, was the main event of his regional tour and signified a major break with the rhetoric of the previous administration. Obama, who appeared to be well prepared and sincere in his intentions, showed that he was very much aware of the tension in the relationship between the U.S. and the Arab and Muslim world, and that it revolves around 3 concerns, the Palestinian question, the U.S. occupation of Iraq, and the U.S.’ attitude towards Islam. This stood in stark contrast to the Bush Administration’s approach of "those who are not with us are against us", its emphasis on the "international war against terrorism", and its policies based on a neo-conservative outlook towards the region.

Much of the Arab media, especially those of "moderate states", were full of praise for the speech, and pro-government and state-sponsored newspapers devoted their main headlines, editorials and key opinion pieces to the analysis of its contents and its implications for regional politics. Newspapers in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, which tend to adopt the official government line, rushed to emphasize the strength of their "strategic" relationship with the U.S., as well as their pivotal role in the region. Critical remarks however, were also voiced, especially the question how this new rhetoric will translate into concrete changes on the ground.

The Arab Press on Obama’s Speech

The Arab world’s most widely read daily, Al-Hayat newspaper, gave the speech very upbeat coverage, calling it a major foreign policy statement and not just a public relations exercise containing empty promises.

Lead articles in Egypt’s newspapers, adopting a nationalist tone, highlighted Obama’s decision to make his 'historic' speech from Cairo as proof of Egypt’s significance in the Arab region of the strength of relations between the U.S. and Egypt. The Al-Ahram daily for example touted "the depth of the strategic relationship between the two countries, their mutual consensus, and the U.S.’ trust in Egypt’s important role in supporting peace and stability in the Middle East".

Saudi papers underlined Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia and his meeting with King Abdallah, which they emphasized took place before his trip to Cairo, as evidence of the deep ties between the two countries.

The Lebanese press’ response to the speech was more muted, largely because parliamentary elections were three days away and columnists were busy analyzing their possible outcome. As columnist Rosana Bu Monsef noted in the pro-Western An-Nahar newspaper, one of Lebanon’s major dailies, Lebanese were so preoccupied with the parliamentary elections that Obama’s speech did not received much attention, and nor have the Lebanese taken stock yet of the speech’s importance. As-Safir, Lebanon’s other major and most balanced daily, took a more skeptical tone, considering the speech as little more than a public relations exercise and an attempt to positively market the new American administration to the Arab and Muslim world.

In Syria, there seemed to be a near blackout of the speech. There was no official comment on it, Syrian newspapers did not cover the speech the next day, nor did state television transmit it. However, Syrian political analyst Sami Moubayed, commenting in Asia Times on June 6th, observed that Syrians watched the speech on private Syrian satellite channels and there were "smiling faces at a realization that something was changing – fast – in Washington D.C.". Moubayed, adopting a semiofficial stance, says that while Syrians are willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt, they want to see his good intentions translated into policies such as the reduction of U.S. sanctions against Syria, removing Syria from the State Department’s List of State Sponsors of Terrorism, and sending an ambassador to Damascus (the post has been vacant since 2005). Moubayed also underlined Syria’s role in the region and the "many common objectives in Iraq, like disarming militias, combating al Qaeda, supporting the political process and helping maintain a united Iraq". On June 9th, a couple of days after the speech, two opinion pieces appeared in the state-sponsored Al-Baath newspaper by Abeer Abdo and Mohamad Sawwanwhich were skeptical of Obama’s ability to impose any conditions or restrictions on Israel and its right-wing government.

Curiously, the speech did not receive much coverage in the Iraqi press. Iraqi commentators mainly reiterated their primary concern being Obama’s renewed pledge to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraqi cities by the end of the month and to remove all U.S. military posts before 2012.

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Obama's speech in Cairo

President Obama held a historical speech in Cairo in front of 3000 students: a plea for a new beginning in the relationship between the Islamic world and the West on the basis of equality and tolerance. A rejection of "regime change" with violent means together with a radical promotion of democracy and human rights as universal values. At the same time, he found clear words about the central issues of conflict: Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel and Palestine, Iran and the threat of a nuclear arms race in the Middle.


Photo: The Obama-Biden Transition Project. This photo is under a Creative Commons Licence.