The day after U.S. President Barack Obama’s address to the Muslim world on June 4, 2009, reactions in the Arab press were diverse. In their editorials, some papers called it an historic speech heralding a new world order based on justice and human rights. Other newspapers, instead, discounted the importance of the speech, stating that Obama’s policy should be judged by his actions, not his words.
These reactions were largely foreseeable, depending on the interests that different media outlets were representing. Still something odd took place during the short stay in Cairo of the American President and it was not just a matter of etiquette. Why, for example, did Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak not receive Obama at the airport as protocol requires? Why did Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son and likely heir, not attend Obama’s speech? And why, after the two presidents met at the Qoba Palace, behind closed doors, was there not any press release of what had been discussed?
A jumble of interpretations was given by Egyptian columnists. However, most of them were convinced that, at the root of the problem, was the fact that the Obama administration had invited ten members of the parliamentary block of the Muslim Brotherhood to attend Obama’s speech. Furthermore, the Egyptian daily Al-Masri El-Youm, the very day of Obama’s visit, wrote that a delegation of the Muslim Brotherhood had met the American president in Washington a few weeks earlier. So, while the Brotherhood’s website, www.ikhwanonline.com, wrote that Obama’s invitation was an obligation, officials close to the Egyptian government might have preferred a tougher stance vis-Ã -vis the Brotherhood.
In fact, in the last few months, the Muslim Brotherhood have aligned themselves more and more to Iran, and have even started a rapprochement with Shiite Islam. Also, a Hezbollah terror cell, that was supposed to carry out terrorist attacks in Egypt in order to destabilize that regime, was arrested a couple of months ago, and Egyptian officials have accused Iran of being behind this plot. Consequently, relations between the Egyptian Government and the Muslim Brotherhood have further deteriorated. To make things worse, the US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, in an interview to the Saudi daily Al-Hayat, completely ignored Iran’s intent to destabilize Egypt.
Therefore, Mubarak might have expected a different kind of speech from Obama. More than focusing on a reconciliation between the US and Islam, Mubarak might have liked his American counterpart to take a clear stand on the ongoing Middle East Cold War that sees, on one side Iran, Syria, Hezbolla, Hamas and, to a lesser extent Qatar and, on the other side, the moderate Arab block, led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Hence, Obama’s words of reconciliation, albeit full of good intentions, seem to be far away from the real issues of the Muslim world, more and more full of growing tensions every day.
The same disappointment seems to have been shared by Saudi Arabia. On the eve of his Cairo speech, Obama met with Saudi King Abdullah; apparently the issues that were of interest to the Saudis were not tackled. In particular, apparently there was no real discussion on how to confront the hegemonic aspirations of Iran and the dangers it poses to the whole region.
Obama’s overtures to foes and friends puzzled friends and encouraged foes. Obama has always spoken about not imposing American ideals on foreign countries. He has suggested it did not work, and there might be some truth in this. But, if you cannot impose it, neither are you are going to achieve much by merely suggesting it and then apologizing.
The impression is that Obama is trying to reshape the unrealistic stances he had taken during the presidential campaign in regard to foreign policy. The U.S. now seems to have abandoned its democratization policy and its Arab allies -- only to pursue an unfeasible dialogue with Iran.