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Obama's Cairo speech will focus on reconciliation

By P Rajendran in New York
Last updated on: June 02, 2009 13:21 IST
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US President Barack Obama's speech to the Muslim world in Egypt Thursday will focus on reconciliation and avoid the apocalyptic vision of the Bush regime, according to experts from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, speaking at a media teleconference.

Besides the speech, Obama's foreign trip is to include a chat with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, followed by trips to Germany and France. The much-awaited speech is to be delivered at Cairo University, and co-hosted by Al-Azhar University, a leading Islamic educational institution.

According to Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the center, American presidents have always had a reputation of being persuaders-in-chief, both in both domestic and foreign policy. He believes the speech, taking place in the most important Arab state Egypt, could help Obama offer a vision of "what America stand for, what the administration proposes to do, and what he expects from the Muslim world."

"I think the speech will focus a lot on reciprocity, on mutual respect and on one important theme… that, from the president's perspective, this is not a clash of civilisations. Maybe for a disturbingly large majority of Arabs and Muslims, it is, but for the president this is a clash of interests. A clash of interests can be ameliorated unlike a clash of values," he said.

He believed Obama would stay in character and not "project not a heavily moralised message – in which the world is divided into black and white.

"There's a lot of grey in this guy's world, and in that grey probably lies the prospects of solving some of these more intractable problems," Miller said.

For Miller, the real significance lay in what Obama would say about authoritarianism in Egypt itself. "What is he going to say in respect of good governance, in respect to human rights, transparency, rule of law, in an Arab country that started down the reform road, but [in which] … much of that has been aborted," he asked.

But he later said that if the administration used Cairo as a venue to break some new ground on core issues, "the last thing it is going to do is get into a brouhaha with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The notion that somehow we're going to make democratisation of Egypt a seminal issue … does not really compute," he said.

The second matter of importance, Miller said, was how Obama could break new ground in the Arab-Israeli peace talks.

"If he doesn't do either of those two, this is going to be a [standard] dog-bites-man speech. It is not going to be a [novel] man-bites-dog speech," he said, adding that he felt the Arab and Muslim world is expecting "something new, something different, and something real."

He said that "after decades of raised expectations, inflated aspirations, and broken promises, deeds matter more" in the Arab world. Obama had set up such a high bar for himself that there are almost impossible expectations of him – "on the Israeli issue, on democratization [of Arab nations], on the knotty problems of Lebanon."

David Ottaway, senior scholar at the center, addressed Obama's talks with King Abdullah and said there would be three key issues: peace, Iran and the oil crisis.

"The Saudis, like most Arabs, are fed up with talk," he said. "They really want to see something concrete happen. They were bitterly disappointed with Bush, who, at the beginning of his administration … in November 2001,said the US was in favour of a two-stage solution to a Palestinian state and did nothing for six years to promote that goal." He said they felt hopeful that Obama is serious about it on the basis of statements he has made. "But they are also mindful of nice statements that past American presidents have made and not followed through," Ottaway said.

He said that both the US and Saudi Arabia worry that Iran developing military nuclear capability threatens the region and the international community, and that the Saudis want the international community to put more pressure on Iran through economic sanctions. Ottaway felt the Saudis could probe Obama regarding his dialogue with Iran and what he intends to achieve with it so that it 's not at the expense of Arab nations.

On the oil crisis, he said that while Obama is worried about oil [price] spikes, the Saudis will certainly say they are worried about that too, because they want stability of oil prices, but they want higher oil prices."

"The Saudis believe it is not a problem of supply, it is a problem of speculators, and that's something they can't control. But they do want higher prices," he said.

Ottaway pointed out that Monday the Saudi cabinet took the unusual step of re-affirming King Abdullah's call for a 'fair' price of 75 dollars a barrel. The current price is ten dollars lower. Saudi Arabia has cut back production from 9.5 million barrels last summer to less than 8 billion barrels today, he said.

Robin Wright, a public policy scholar at the center, pointed out that there is much the US can provide in terms of programs, expertise, technology on the economic front for people in the region.

"A place like Egypt, a country with 82 million people … had a GDP last year of $405 billion, which is literally on par with the revenues of Wal-Mart," she said. She felt "there's an enormous potential for the administration to step in if it's willing to go beyond the traditional boundaries of US aid, which focused heavily on propping up regimes with military aid." And organizations approved by the government."

She did not think the Obama administration indicated it is reaching out to political groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in Palestine.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the biggest political opposition group to President Hosni Mubarak's government in Egypt, had dismissed Obama's speech May 9, saying it was being made to further Israel's agenda.

Already Muslim Brotherhood second-in-command Mohamed Habib has told Reuters that Obama was reaching out to Syria and Iran to serve American interests and to ensure Israel's superiority.

The Brotherhood is, and seeks an Islamic state through democratic means. It disavowed violence decades ago and is officially banned, but operates relatively openly. It controls roughly a fifth of seats in Egypt's lower house of parliament. The group played a seminal role in the development of Islamist ideology and political groups around the Muslim world.

Asked if Obama could raise an issue of human rights in Saudi Arabia with King Abdullah, given tales of child marriages, bloggers being detained, etc, Ottaway said there was no early sign that he would.

"It is certainly on the table for a lot of Saudis. You have 77 scholars and academics and jurists who recently came out in a petition to the King calling for – once again – an elected parliament and even an elected, non-royal prime minister," he said. "The opening is there if Obama wishes to take up that issue, but I haven't seen any indication that he intends to raise those issues with the king while he's there.

"It is a private conversation, so who knows what they may say behind closed doors. But there's no indication he's going to make that an issue. The only thing he's definitely going to speak about is the Middle East peace process – other than Iran and oil," Ottaway said.

Wright chipped in to say that "if China is any indication, the Obama administration is coming across increasingly as realist rather than ambitious in terms of the human rights agenda." She said it was willing to compromise, using less forceful language on human rights.

"Given all that the administration wants from Saudi Arabia, it is quite likely that they may defer the issue to some place down the road," she said.

According to Asia Society Associate Fellow Sadanand Dhume, 'President Obama's speech Thursday is the most awaited presidential speech on foreign soil since John F. Kennedy famously visited Berlin in 1963.' He felt it gave Obama the chance to allay fears that the US is in a war against Islam. But he pointed out that it would also force the president to walk a line between appealing and pandering to hardliners, between supporting democracy and undemocratic pro-Western allies such as Egypt and Jordan, and between standing up for principles such as women's rights and pluralism and appearing to preach to a hostile population.

Conservative writer David P Goldman, writing as Spengler in the Asia Times, felt Obama made a grave error in making his Cairo speech but could salvage the situation if he moved it to New Delhi.

'To speak to the 'Muslim world,' is to speak not to a fact, but rather to an aspiration, and that is the aspiration that Islam shall be a global state religion as its founders intended. To address this aspiration is to breathe life into it,' he wrote.

By addressing the 'Islamic world' from Cairo, Obama lends credibility to the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and other advocates of political Islam, Goldman write, arguing that 'rather than buttress a loyal ally [Mubarak], Obama's speech undermines him on his home ground. That is a lose-lose proposition.

He argued for the change of venue to New Delhi, pointing out that India's Muslim population is the world's third-largest at 158 million, just under Pakistan's 175 million and Indonesia's 200 million.

He felt Obama could argue for an Islam that thrives even when it is not a state religion, despite clashes with other communities. Goldman felt that "Muslims around the world could look to India as an example of moderation and co-existence…'

'That sort of speech would get the undivided attention of the Muslim world. Anything else will lend credibility to the Islamists and foster triumphalism,' he wrote.

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