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‘We Pray for God to Protect Him’ (as opposed to shoe throwing!)

15/06/2009

Obama in Cairo Winning Hearts and Minds…Wildly Raising Hopes

In sharp contrast to the unwelcoming shoe hurled at President Bush in his last media conference in the Middle East, President Obama and his speech were very well-received in Egypt and the rest of the Muslim-majority world.

The audience in Cairo University interrupted the speech 23 times by waves of applause (that is just slightly above average by Middle Eastern standards, especially when the cheering crowd is hand-picked by the Egyptian State Security Investigations).

Outside of the university, reactions were also quite positive. Speaking to my apolitical mother and two of her friends in Cairo, the reaction was: “he is such a beautiful kid,” “we love him,” and “we are praying for God to protect him.”

There are several reasons for this Middle East Obama-mania. The crowd in Cairo has no recollection of Clinton’s eloquent speeches and did not care to hear Bush’s. In other words, they have few comparative references.

But much more important, this is the first time Arabs and Muslims are hearing a very eloquent, “politically correct” speech from a Black American President who has Muslim relatives. For many, that is revolutionary in content and rhetoric –if not necessarily in policies.

But let us not dance around this jarring disconnect: On a normal day in Cairo or al-Azhar Universities (the two institutions that sponsored the speech), there is little time and space for genuine, open-minded contemplation or debate.

Both universities are big intellectual prisons ruled by the State Security Services. State Security Generals decide which professor gets hired, which one gets promoted, which one gets fired, and which one gets detained.

If President Obama were to visit Cairo University on a normal day, he would find four trucks of Central Security Forces parked on the right side of the main entrance. They never go away – 24/7. Al-Azhar as an institution is not hospitable to political correctness or Egyptian democrats. It did establish itself, however, as a leading authority behind censorship of book and creative ideas. It is also the institution that constantly calls on punishing and harassing secular intellectuals, most notably Dr Nasr Abu Zeid.

Dr. Ayman al-Zawahri, al-Qaida’s second-in-command, and Dr. Omar Abd al-Rahman, the radical cleric imprisoned in the U.S. for the WTC bombing in 1993, were both radicalized in, and graduated from, Cairo and al-Azhar Universities. The constant cycles of repression that plagued the two universities between 1960s and the 2000s made them strongholds for radical groups.

Yet the core idea of repressive autocrats breeding violent theocrats was absent from the President’s speech.

What the Obama administration will probably understand from the outpouring of applause the President received is that Arabs and Muslims are yearning for democracy, not the Caliphate; and abhorring repression, not America.

The administration, however, should also understand that the Arab-majority world has known eloquent leaders before. Those leaders raised the hopes and the expectation of Arabs and Muslims but never delivered on their promises. Nasser comes to mind.
President Obama’a speech was historical.

It raised the hopes and the expectations of many Arabs and Muslims and they will look back to it and measure his policies against it. The hope now is that the President will not sacrifice America’s core values of freedom and self-determination for short-term political expediency by supporting repressive autocrats.

Only then can the United States reclaim its moral force in the Arab- and Muslim-majority world.