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In Region, Obama's Cairo II Moment Appears To Fall Flat

  • Robert Tait

A veiled woman walks near a television in the West Bank city of Nablus during the May 19 speech by U.S. President Barack Obama.

A veiled woman walks near a television in the West Bank city of Nablus during the May 19 speech by U.S. President Barack Obama.

It was trumpeted in advance as "Cairo II," but someone must have forgotten to tell the Egyptians.

For U.S. President Barack Obama's much-trailed speech addressing the tumultuous events now collectively known as the "Arab Spring" went down like a lead balloon in Egypt's capital -- the scene two years ago of a similarly hyped oration that was meant to reset the United States' relations with the Islamic world.

Four months after a popular uprising forced Washington's long-time ally Hosni Mubarak to relinquish the Egyptian presidency, no one seemed to have given much thought about what the leader of the free world had to say.

A prior pledge to guarantee Egypt $1 billion in loans and relieve it of a similar sum in debts in an effort to help its fledgling democracy seemed to count for nothing in the court of popular opinion. Neither did flowing rhetoric that paid tribute -- perhaps belatedly -- to the movements that undid Mubarak and former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Karima El-Hifnawy, a senior member of the opposition National Association for Change, told the "Daily News Egypt" newspaper that Obama's words rang hollow, adding: "The U.S. supported all the former dictatorships and people forced it to support the revolutions."

People watch a television broadcast of the May 19 speech by U.S. President Barack Obama at a shop in Benghazi.

Joe Hammond, an RFE/RL correspondent in Cairo, described the mood on the streets as a mixture of ignorance and apathy. In contrast to the 2009 address, which was closely followed, many Egyptians were not even aware Obama had made a speech. Others, mindful of U.S. indecision in the early stages of the anti-Mubarak protests dismissed it as a "Johnny come lately" speech, Hammond said.

Egyptians regard a speech from a Muslim-majority country's capital differently from an appearance at the U.S. State Department, he said.

He cited apathy to the U.S. response to what they see as local developments referred to collectively as the "Arab spring" or "Arab revolution."

That mood of cynicism was apparent in the response of one Egyptian commentator, Issandr El Amrani, who wrote in a blog that the "politically most significant" part of the speech was in its opening remarks that predicted Hillary Clinton would be remembered as one of the finest secretaries of state in American history. Clinton provoked outrage among Egyptian opposition figures in the early days of the protests by lauding Mubarak's regime as "stable."

Disappointment was not confined to Egypt.

Obama has been criticized for failing to mention Saudi Arabia, a staunch American ally that has suppressed domestic protests and deployed troops to help quell a rebellion in the tiny Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, where the U.S. has a large naval base.

Nor did his warning addressed to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, convince skeptics.

Addressing the brutal crackdown of protests that have seen at least 800 people killed in the past two months, Obama said: "The Syrian people have shown their courage in demanding a transition to democracy. President Assad now has a choice: he can lead that transition, or get out of the way."

Anti-regime protesters march during a rally in Hama, Syria, on May 13.

That was dismissed as inadequate by Nadim Shehadi, a Middle East specialist with London's Chatham House think tank, who gave the address a "C-minus" grade and urged the president to "sack his speechwriters." Obama missed the chance, Shehadi says, to display a moral authority and clarity of purpose that could have led to the collapse of Assad's leadership.

"He's still giving a chance to Bashar al-Assad and giving the impression, wrongly, that he has a choice between reforming or leaving," Shehadi says. "He went that extra step saying he has to go if he doesn't reform but he's still saying that he can reform. The international position is very important. Ben Ali resigned when he realized that he had no more international and Arab cover. [It's] the same with Mubarak. He hung on. He thought he was safe when Obama sent the envoy [Frank Wisner] to see him. But when he felt that he had no more international support he had to leave."

Overall, Shehadi says, Obama failed to make it clear that he was abandoning his previous policy of engagement with dictators in favor of siding with pro-democracy movements, an approach adopted by the Bush administration which the president criticized in the past.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama called for a restoration of peace talks that would lead to a settlement based on the pre-1967 borders. That provoked a barbed response from the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who said the borders were "indefensible."

Yossi Mekelberg, international relations program director at Regent's College in London, says Obama's remarks were significant for their "resolute" tone and for their timing, coming on the eve of Netanyahu's scheduled visit to Washington. But doubts remain over whether Obama -- facing a run for re-election next year -- has the will to follow through by forcing Israel's hand at the possible cost of alienating some of his domestic support.

"When he says that the international community is fed up with procrastination, I think this is important," Mekelberg says. "What he says is that we had nearly 18 years of process with no outcome; 18 years of negotiation without an end game, and what he wants to see is an end game. And I think the message to the Israeli government is, 'We don't to see just negotiations, we don't want to discuss freezing of settlements, we don't want to discuss just how we are getting back to the negotiating table. We want to see what is the process to bring, once and for all, an agreement.' As long as it's followed by action [it's good] because with Obama there is always the right policies, the right ideas, but never the right diplomacy, never the right decision."