May 29th, 2009
03:49 PM ET

Middle East eagerly awaits Obama with curiosity and cautious optimism

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/05/29/art.arab.cartoon.abbas.obama.jpg caption="A political cartoon published in the Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds."]

Octavia Nasr
AC360° Contributor
CNN Senior Editor Mideast Affairs

President Barack Obama will deliver a message to the Muslim world on Thursday. He chose Cairo, Egypt, as his podium. Not surprising, when you consider Egypt’s size and stature in the Muslim world. Population of about 60 million, and home to Al-Azhar Mosque, the authority on Islam and the launching point of thousands of Islamic clerics and scholars spread all over the world from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Add to that the role secular Egypt plays in the region especially on the Palestinian-Israeli front and the media access where everyone, including Israeli journalists, is welcomed and provided the forum to beam the speech quickly and widely across the world.

Professor Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institute just led an opinion poll tracking sentiments between media and identity in the Arab Middle East. He says poll results show President Obama right now enjoying a clear popularity in the region in comparison to his predecessor President George W. Bush.

The poll conducted in six moderate Arab countries in April and May shows President Obama as someone “Arabs admire and want to love,” says Telhami. “Their negative views of him are very low… however, they’re still skeptical of the U.S. administration and its foreign policy.”

Mr. Obama had already delivered two messages to Muslims: The first one in Turkey and the second during his address to Iran on the occasion of Iranian New Year. Telhami says the choice of Egypt “the first Arab-Muslim country as the venue of his third speech in an ongoing dialogue with Muslims is very fitting.” Telhami added, “Since most Muslims and Arabs view the U.S. through a prism of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and Egypt being at the front of that, it provides President Obama a challenging audience.”

The reaction to the trip in the Arab world is a mirror of Telhami’s findings. Some in the Arab media such as Diana Mukalled applauded the Obama administrations steps to “get tough” on Israel. She highlights in the London-based Asharq Alawsat Mr. Obama’s insistence on the two-state solution and his firm demand for an immediate halt to illegal settlements in Palestinian territories. Mukalled believes these positions are “making Israelis very nervous.”

Others, like Ali Fakhro asks the U.S. President to “spare the Arab world his drama.” He writes in the Palestinian-owned, London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi that what Mr. Obama is saying so far sounds great, but won’t be applied. Fakhro’s conclusion is that the U.S. has a set Middle East foreign policy unfavorable to Arabs and very favorable to Israel that no one can change even the President himself.

Another widespread view in the Arab world is summarized in a political cartoon published in the Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds. It shows President Obama and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas standing at one side of the “Two-state solution” wall while an Israeli settlement bulldozer demolishes the other side of the wall.

From Israel, one view of the trip is somewhat shrouded in disappointment and perhaps some concern as to why Mr. Obama on his first official Middle East trip is not making a stop in Israel. In an opinion editorial entitled “We’re in trouble,” Eitan Haber writes in the Ydioth Ahronoth, “Obama still believes, apparently, that the Pakistani nuclear bomb and the Iranian nuclear bomb and other bombs expected from this terrible and hostile world can be neutralized by appeasement and accommodation.” Haber then concludes that, “Obama wishes to separate what have become Siamese twins for generations now: The U.S. and Israel. He doesn't like the photographs […] where Israeli and American flags are burned together. Always together.”

Another view is more rational and less emotional. About the likelihood of a successful speech in Cairo, a Ha’aretz editorial reads, “So far Israel has "benefited" from the balance in which Muslim hostility toward the U.S. has turned Israel into America's only apparent strategic partner in the region. Now Washington may find new friends. Israel's exclusivity is about to crack, if not crash.” But the editorial quickly advises Israel to “calm down’ and “encourage the reestablishment of the U.S.'s status in the Middle East” instead of fearing it. A U.S. that can strongly move the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, that can forge common interests between Israel and Arab regimes struggling against local terror, that would set up a regional alliance and act to block strategic threats like the Iranian one, is a U.S. whose new agenda is worthy both for Israel and the Arab and Muslim countries.”

This is a tall order for sure. But President Obama has made a commitment to all those points during his election campaign and renewed it early in his presidency. There is no doubt that a lot is riding on next week’s speech; expectations are as high as the stakes.

We don’t know what lasting impact President Obama’s visit and speech will leave on the region, but one thing is guaranteed: There won’t be a shortage of coverage or a drought in opinions. Mr. Obama through his timing, decisions and rhetoric, has already given Middle Easterners of all religions, ideologies and politics a good reason to argue and debate. Something they love anyway.

Sounds better than giving them a reason to kill each other, and that’s a start.

soundoff (One Response)
  1. MLK

    Exactly what Iran wants is for the US to seek another round of dialogue, all the while Iran is busily preparing ther nuclear weapons. The goal of Iran are clearly to control the entire region through intimidation. Obamas position is exactly what they want to hear. Another sad day for the world

    May 29, 2009 at 8:39 pm |