CNN Arab Affairs Editor
The Arab world watched the US elections with much interest and a high level of conviction that the outcome will give them a crystal ball view into the future of relations between their countries and the United States of America.
On Arab media, on the streets, in chat rooms and in cafes, most Arabs were rooting for Barack Obama. Some say they were energized by Obama’s message, others blame what they call the failed Bush policies in the region and the fear that McCain will follow the same path. So, as soon as the announcement of Barack Obama’s victory came out, many people across the Middle East jumped for joy. The congratulatory commentaries also flew on FaceBook and other social networking sites.
Arab satellite channels gave their viewers a front seat view of the elections with explanations, guests and analysis. One thing commentators and ordinary citizens agreed on is that if the US chooses an African-American for president, they will usher in a true new era where “America will be preaching the same brands of democracy, tolerance and freedom it lives first at home.”
Now that the first test is over, on to the burning issues that President-elect Barack Obama receives from his predecessor. In one analyst’s words, “Obama has bought what Bush broke.” The “inherited” challenges are many and they’re serious, some even think they’re insurmountable. They can be broken down into what Arab media call “the hot files.”
Iran: The sizzling file that can’t wait
Iran’s unwavering nuclear ambitions are considered by many Arabs as the toughest challenge for the Obama presidency. Iran today is a far more powerful country from that of 2000 when George W. Bush took office. Iran proudly flexes its nuclear muscle –for peaceful purposes as it claims—and shows off alliances extending from Lebanon (Hezbollah) to the Palestinian territories (Hamas) to Syria and Iraq. Iran is seen as key to many of the US’ woes in the region and without a resolution of sorts to the deadlock in the relationship between the two countries, more regional tensions are feared to be on the horizon. An entire region now watches if Mr. Obama will act on his campaign rhetoric of engaging Iran, starting dialogue and trying sanctions first before resorting to a military response.
Iraq: Trouble, trouble everywhere
Barack Obama’s plan to pull US troops out of Iraq is a welcome proposition for the region. Prior to the Iraq war in 2003, very few Middle Easterners believed that Iraq had any weapons of mass destruction. As a result, the majority of people opposed the war and thought that there were “better” ways to remove Saddam Hussein from power than invasion. Now, the focus is on how President-elect Barack Obama will deal with the complicated situation. Particularly worrisome, is the inability so far for the US and Iraq to reach a security agreement for the future. With an Iraq still weighed down by sectarian divisions and insurgency attacks, can the Obama administration propose a security agreement that all Iraqi sides - Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis–will approve of?
Syria: Diplomacy or pressure in the new era?
Only a few weeks ago, a US raid against a target on the Syrian side of the Iraqi border, raised already heightened tensions between Syria and the United States. The US said the target was a Syrian smuggling ring of Arab terrorists into Iraq. Syria’s foreign minister lashed out at the attack and called it, “US aggression against innocent civilians” and demanded an apology. Following the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, the US’ rhetoric against Syria was raised to an all time high with President Bush calling on Syria repeatedly to “stop meddling in Lebanon’s business.” During his campaign Mr. Obama expressed his position on Syria’s actions saying they pose a threat to Israel as well as Iraq. The Syrian state-controlled Tishreen newspaper published a few days ago an editorial under the headline, “Everyone knows that the period of US foolishness is over.” In it the newspaper said, "It is better for them to recognize their mistakes publicly and apologize” from Americans, Arabs and Muslims.
These might be “the sizzling files” which Arab media believe should be addressed first. But, there are many more files needing immediate attention of course. Terrorism is on the mind of many in the face of a sharp rise in fundamentalism activity across the Middle East and North Africa. Extreme ideologies are spreading across the land with more terror groups pledging allegiance to al Qaeda and carrying out attacks in its name. Not to mention that Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri remain at large with no clear plan from Mr. Obama on how he plans to deal with their threat or what method he’ll follow to bring them and other terrorists to justice.
The ever-present Arab-Israeli conflict, the fate of the peace process, and the status of Jerusalem are subjects that always generate heated debate. This election is no different. During his campaign, Mr. Obama made his support for Israel clear. He articulated in no uncertain terms his rejection of any possibility of “having another Holocaust.” He had some conflicting opinions on the status of Jerusalem but at the end he left it to the Israelis and Palestinians to debate as a final agreement issue.
The failing world economy and the US’ petroleum policies under Mr. Obama are also topics of concern and intense debate in the Middle East. There are already conversations going on about how the Middle East region will be affected and the necessity to come up with new oil strategies and policies in the face of deadlines the President-elect has already set during his campaign for the US to switch to green energy and end its dependence on Middle Eastern oil.
In closing, the Iranians want to have what they believe is their right to “peaceful” nuclear energy. The Syrians want what they believe is their right to an apology. The Iraqis want what they believe is their right to their own version of a security plan. Add to that millions of Middle Easterners who want to see “change” they “can believe in.” An already full plate for President-elect Barack Obama; and that’s just one region of the world. Now that the campaigning is over and President Obama will take his oath of office in a few short weeks, all eyes will be watching whether campaign rhetoric will meet presidency pragmatism.
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