President Obama’s address at Cairo university—interrupted by applause 18 times—was widely acclaimed in the Arab world as an historic speech. But in some quarters in the region, it was received with a large pinch of salt.
Some listeners believe it signaled a departure from previous U.S. administration policies; but others, who regard it a mere exercise in public relations, expressed doubts about whether Obama’s actions will ultimately match his rhetoric.
While Egypt’s government heaped praise on Obama’s “balanced approach” to the region’s problems, the Egyptian pro-democracy group known as Kefaya—which translates as “Enough”—said the speech’s content was almost a “carbon copy of Bush’s speeches, but with new, more politically correct, terminology.”
Compared to Bush, Obama “is much harder to decipher,” one editorial said. “He must’ve confused America’s enemies by giving ‘the Great Satan’ a much more attractive face.”
Abdul-Halim Qandil, the general coordinator of Kefaya, told Elaph.com, the leading Arab online newspaper, that Obama “used the Holy Koran to sell us old U.S. policies,” in reference to the president quoting the Muslim holy book to drive home his point.
“Message Received” was the headline for Asharq Al Awsat, the leading pan-Arab newspaper, but the paper argued that “it remains to be seen how [Obama] will translate his positions on ending Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories and halting Iran’s nuclear program into policies and actions.”
“He spoke as though he was the master of the world, but he did say all the right things we wanted to hear,” the paper added.
But the lead editorial in the pan-Arab Al Hayat newspaper had a different take, saying the new U.S. president has succeeded in confusing many of those opposed to U.S. policies in the region: “It was easier to deal with Bush… who echoed Osama bin Laden when he divided the world between good and evil. But this new visitor is much harder to decipher. He must’ve confused America’s enemies by giving ‘the Great Satan’ a much more attractive face.”
Al Jazeera, the Arab world’s leading satellite-TV channel, celebrated the speech as “an attempt at forging a new relationship between Washington and the Muslim world.” It took notice of his reference to Iraq as being a war of choice and not necessity, and to the United States’ overthrow of the popular government in Iran in 1953 as a mistake, but also noted that the president stopped short of offering a straightforward apology.
Iraqi blogger Nibras Kazimi, of Talisman Gate, cast doubt on whether Obama’s speech will give America any positive advantage against its worst enemies, such as al Qaeda. He quoted from a speech released by the terrorist organization’s leader in Iraq, Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi, on the eve of Obama’s address in Cairo, which declared that Obama, who was born to a Muslim father, was an apostate for converting to Christianity:
“It is gladdening that the commander of the [Christian] forces in their war on the Muslims today is a black slave [who has] apostatized from Islam. Thanks be to Allah they don’t have a man [among] them to put forward, so they borrow a submissive slave who [is an] apostate from his religion to incur the anger of God and his spite and the quickness of his punishment. So rejoice in the era of the black [man] of Washington.”
A recent Gallup poll shows that approval of U.S. leadership is up in some Arab countries since Obama took office; in Egypt, it has jumped by 19 percent. This improvement appears to reflect a positive reception of Obama’ efforts to engage the Muslim world, which started with his inaugural address and the choice of Al-Arabiya TV for his first interview. However, approval ratings for U.S. policies remain low across Arab countries, hovering around a median of 25 percent, and many Arabs polled remain undecided about their opinion of Obama.
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Salameh Nematt is the international editor of The Daily Beast. He is the former Washington bureau chief for the international Arab daily Al Hayat, where he reported on US foreign policy, the war in Iraq, and the US drive for democratization in the broader Middle East. He has also written extensively on regional and global energy issues and their political implications.