The Cairo speech: Arab Muslim voices

Zaid Al-Ali Karim Kasim
8 June 2009

A visit by an American president to the Arab world might not in normal circumstances be of great importance to the majority of people in the region. There is still much suspicion towards the United States in the middle east, and this tends to be reflected in indifference to the appearance of a head of state of the country in its midst.

Karim Kasim is a researcher in development and political science at the American University in Cairo (AUC). He has been working on ICT for development in Lebanon, Egypt and elsewhere in the middle east. He is involved in a number of local initiatives, including youth work, activism, volunteer work and intercultural learning

Zaid Al-Ali is an attorney at the New York Bar and specialises in international commercial arbitration. He graduated from King's College London, the Sorbonne University in Paris and Harvard Law School

Among Zaid Al-Ali's articles in openDemocracy:

"Iraq: the lost generation" (7 November 2004)

"Iraq's war of elimination" (21 August 2006)

"The United States in Iraq: the case for withdrawal" (19 January 2007)

"Iraqis in freefall" (21 March 2007)

"Iraq: a wall to conquer us" (8 May 2007)

"Lebanon's Palestinian shame" (19 June 2007)

"What Obama means for Iraq" (13 November 2008)

"Lebanon: chronicles of an attempted suicide" (20 May 2009)But these are not normal times. President Barack Obama's persona had already engaged great interest among Arabs, but his address in Cairo on 4 June 2009 on the Muslim world and the "new beginning" he seeks to forge with it has captivated them. In more concrete terms, Obama's visit has reinforced what has been evident for some time: a feeling of hope that a president with his background will tilt American policy in favour of popular will and against oppression in Palestine, Iraq and the region as a whole. 

There is widespread agreement that the speech is unlikely to be followed by sudden changes; and indeed that no single individual - even the president - can decisively shift American policy. But a space has opened, and - as this brief article shows - Arab Muslims (as well those elsewhere) are filling it with their ideas.


In the days before the speech, Cairo residents were more concerned by the draconian security measures they were sure would be imposed on 4 June. As a result, many opted to stay at home. Yet even then, Obama's message - its timing, substance and likely reception - were very much on people's minds. 

"Turkey did not work, so he is trying Egypt", said Ashraf Qadah, a philosophy graduate. "I am afraid that it is going to be a speech that starts and ends in Cairo. Obama's address will be a public-relations matter that will go nowhere after Obama leaves the city", he added. 

Aseel, a young Iraqi, expressed little hope that things would change as a result of the visit and speech. Her logic was in part that "(Obama) chose to give his speech in Egypt, which is under the thumb of an aging autocrat who embodies the antithesis of hope and change".

Many Egyptians posed a question that reflected Aseel's concerns: namely which Muslim world is Obama going to speak to - Arab Muslim regimes, Muslim societies at large, or opposition political parties (especially those with Islamic inclinations)? Others were unnerved by the fact that the impending message was directed specifically towards Muslims - which set the target audience apart from the many religious minorities that exist throughout the Islamic world, many of whom share Muslims' animosity towards US policies.  This point is underlined by the event's location: Egypt is home to the largest Christian community in the Arab world.

But Adel El Zaim, a Lebanese-Canadian living in Cairo, insisted that the visit itself was a source of hope. The president "has not waited until the end of his mandate to launch a peace initiative, like George W Bush", he said. "The visit is also a milestone in the relationship between the United States and the Arab Muslim world. It will help build the lost trust between the two sides - a first step that must be followed by several others."

There is indeed some surprise at such an early move toward the Muslim world. "I know Obama's attitude towards the region has been quite positive - more so than I expected" said Maha Bali, a technologist at the American University in Cairo. Kismet El-Husseiny, an economics graduate, was more sceptical: for Obama it is an opportunity to make "small promises that are not too hard to keep, but will be delivered in a way that makes them impressive."


Barack Obama's speech was broadcast live on dozens of channels throughout the middle east (and was reprinted in full in many newspapers the day after). Life went on: streets across the region were as ever filled with people, and traffic doesn't stop in Arab capitals. But large numbers did listen to or watch the broadcast, often grouped together in cafes or conference rooms. The event brought Arabs from Morocco to Iraq together and captured their attention in a way that is usually reserved for major sporting events - or the start of a war.

The reaction, more uniform than the anticipation, was greatly positive - though with questions about how much change Obama could really deliver. Abdullah, an academic in a Lebanese university, expressed the view that Obama's speech "is a historical opportunity for the Arab region. I wish that Arabs would take an initiative of their own to seize the opportunities that Obama is presenting. What he said is in line with our way of thinking and the initiatives he announced were inspiring." 

On the US president's efforts to build bridges between western and Islamic civilisations, Abdullah added that "Obama gave more credit to Arab and Islamic contributions than Arabs themselves do. He also delivered an important blow to Islamic fundamentalists: whereas previously many Arabs and Muslims were convinced that the west was no ally to them, Obama showed them that in him they have a friend". 

Yasmine, an employee of an international organisation in Beirut, was less impressed by the substance of the speech than by the fact that a president of the United States shared many of her own views and ideas. "We've heard all this before, but not from a president", she said.

What little criticism there was focused on the Israeli-Arab peace process. "He didn't call for the settlements [in the Palestinian territories] to be dismantled. He merely said that construction must stop. How can a Palestinian state be established if the settlements that are already there remain?" asked Hani, a Syrian economics graduate. "Obama has no leeway with the Israelis. They will force him to backtrack", said Samir, a Lebanese resident of Saudi Arabia. 

There is substantive agreement between Barack Obama himself and most of the Arab public that the true test of the speech is whether specific changes in US policy with regard to Palestine and the rest of the Arab Muslim world follow - including the commitments over Iraq. Abbas, a public official in Iraq, sums up the mood of the moment: "Obama's achievement for now is to have opened the door for much-needed change, and to contribute to the efforts of many in the Arab and Islamic worlds to encourage tolerance and understanding". 

What will these Arab voices think in six months' time? We hope to ask them and report on our findings.

Also in openDemocracy on Barack Obama and the world:

John C Hulsman, "Memo to Obama: the middle east needs you" (11 November 2008)

Zaid Al-Ali, "What Obama means for Iraq" (13 November 2008)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "The failure of force: an alternative option" (16 January 2009)

openDemocracy, "Barack Obama: hope, fear... advice" (20 January 2009)

Pervez Hoodbhoy, "Barack Obama's triple test" (21 January 2009)

Fred Halliday, "The greater middle east: Obama's six problems" (21 January 2009)

Tarek Osman, "The Islamic world, the United States, democracy" (15 May 2009)

Robert G Rabil, "Barack Obama's middle east: pragmatism and hope" (1 June 2009)

Nader Hashemi, "What Obama must say (and do) in Egypt" (3 June 2009)

Kanishk Tharoor, "Obama's speech in Cairo: live blog" (4 June 2009)

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