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Obama's Mideast Tour Highlighted By Key Cairo Address

  • Heather Maher

A man shows the Arabic copy of Newsweek magazine ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama trip to the Middle East.

A man shows the Arabic copy of Newsweek magazine ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama trip to the Middle East.

WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama has arrived in Saudi Arabia for the start of a Middle East and Europe tour that will include a major address aimed at furthering his goal of dialogue with the world's Muslims.

Obama surprised many by picking Cairo -- the largest city in the Arab world and the center of Islamic learning and culture -- as the venue for his speech.

The White House describes the Egyptian appearance as an important part of Obama's engagement with the Muslim world, which has so far included giving one of his first presidential interviews to an Arab television station, sending Norouz greetings to Iranians, and holding a town hall meeting in Turkey.

At each opportunity he has struck a tone of conciliation and respect as he seeks to repair frayed relations between the United States and the Islamic world.

According to the White House, the president's speech in Cairo will "outline his personal commitment to engagement, based upon mutual interests and mutual respect" and include Obama's thoughts on how the United States and Muslim communities around the world can bridge some of the differences that have divided them.

He is, according to his aides, "eager to change the conversation with [the United States'] Muslim and Arab friends."

Burning Question

Most observers expected Obama to choose Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country on Earth and his former childhood home, before the White House announced that Cairo would be the location for what has been dubbed by some "Obama's Muslim speech."

Late last week, senior administration officials held a conference call with reporters to try to answer the question of why they chose Cairo. They noted that Egypt is a long-time strategic ally of the United States, a key country in the Arab and Muslim world, and a pivotal player in the Middle East.

The country also has a huge youth population that Obama plans to address directly in his remarks.

Obama will speak on June 4 on the palm-tree lined campus of Cairo University, which has been the scene of student pro-democracy protests and represents liberal Arab learning. The university's graduates include the late Nobel Prize-winning writer Naguib Mahfouz, a devout Muslim who was also outspoken in his criticism of fundamentalist excesses.

In choosing a site for his speech, Obama faced a dilemma. Since fewer than 15 percent of Muslims are Arab, picking a location within the Arab world risked a failure to appeal to the wider Muslim world; but selecting a site outside the Arab world could have been criticized as an exceedingly "safe" choice.

Michelle Dunne, an expert on Arab politics and U.S. policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says there was no "perfect destination" but that Cairo is a logical choice.

"I think the Obama administration has been quite ambitious in terms of what it's done in the Middle East so far and Cairo is an ambitious choice," Dunne, a former State Department Middle East-affairs specialist, says. "It shows -- and I think it's meant to show -- that President Obama is kind of taking the Middle East by the horns, so to speak. In other words, he's taking on the most difficult issues directly and he's not ducking them."

For 'Gradual Reform'

Amr Hamzawy, an Egyptian political scientist who has taught at Cairo University and writes for both the leading Arab daily "Al-Hayat" and the Egyptian independent daily "Al-Masry Al-Youm," thinks Obama chose Cairo because it offers him the opportunity to talk not just about U.S.-Muslim relations but also about the region's many pressing political and security issues.

Hamzawy says that by sending Obama in Cairo, Washington is sending a message that it is prioritizing issues like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the future of Iraq, Iran's nuclear program, and growing extremism.

It's also "a choice for moderation," Hamzawy says.

"Going to Egypt is, in fact, is a clear signal for America's preferences in the region," he says. "When [it looks] at the Arab world, America is confronted with a map of moderate [and] nonmoderate actors, state [and] nonstate actors -- and clearly [the choice of Cairo is] a preference for moderate, modern states. Egypt, of course, has great deficits when it comes to democracy and human rights, but overall [it's] a moderate, modern state committed to gradual reform and peace."

Those democracy and human rights "deficits" to which Hamzawy refers have led to speculation about whether Obama plans to raise U.S. concerns with the Egypt's authoritarian leader, Hosni Mubarak.

After all, Mubarak has been Egypt's president for 28 years and only began allowing direct elections for the presidency four years ago. Rules effectively limit who can become a candidate for any elected office, and the Egyptian government has a record of suppressing opposing voices in the media and in politics.

The day after she met with Egypt's Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with members of Egyptian pro-democracy groups at the State Department and then told reporters, "It is in Egypt's interest to move more toward democracy and to exhibit more respect for human rights."

'Quiet' Diplomacy

Egypt has recently seemed interested in convincing the United States that it's working on its problems. In February, Cairo released opposition politician Ayman Nour, whose detention had long been a sticking point in U.S.-Egypt relations.

Carnegie's Dunn is careful to qualify some encouraging signs in Egypt, like greater freedom of expression and media freedom. "There is much broader political debate tolerated than used to be the case in Egypt, and there have been some improvements in the status of civil-society organizations and human rights organizations, so there are some improvements in those areas," he says. "But in terms of political freedom in general, there is not much of an improvement."

Clinton was asked whether human rights concerns would be raised when Obama is in Egypt, and she replied that the issue is "always on the agenda."

Dunne expects Obama to raise U.S. concerns "quietly" but says the topic is unavoidable.

"The fact that he chose to speak in Egypt means that he really cannot avoid these issues: Egypt is the most heavily populated country in the Arab world, it's an extremely important country and it has a lot of political ferment going on there," Dunn says. "So I don't think it's possible for him to choose to speak in Egypt and to say nothing about those issues, to speak only, for example, about Arab-Israeli peace, and Iran, and that kind of thing. I'm sure he will speak about those issues, but he will also need to address these human rights and democracy questions."

White House officials have already indicated that Iran, Iraq, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will all be mentioned in the speech.

Among Arabs, according to Hamzaway, "there are great expectations that [Obama] will lay out a plan for peace...not only between Israel and the Palestinians, but for the Middle East in general."

Obama was expected to arrive in Saudi Arabia on June 3 to kick off the six-day trip, where he would meet in Riyadh with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah.

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