World watches inauguration with hope, questions

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 20, 2009 

From Jerusalem to Jakarta and from Nairobi to Moscow, tens of millions around the world watched Barack Obama become president of the United States on Tuesday, feeling a mix of hope that he'd bring peace to a war-torn world and doubts about what one man could accomplish.

In Kenya, where Obama's father was born, hundreds of people from all walks of life and ethnic communities sat in the great court of the University of Nairobi, counting the hours and minutes until the inauguration.

When he took the oath, the crowd leapt to its feet, erupting in cheers of "Yes we can!" and "Obama! Odinga!" Both Obama and Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga are descended from Kenya's Luo tribe.

"There are no words to describe how I'm feeling," said David Osienya, a 24-year-old literature student. Obama "has shown us it is time for us young people to change society after our old politicians here nearly took us to civil war.

A similar scene played out in Jakarta, Indonesia, where Obama lived as a child for four years with his mother. About a thousand excited people crowded into a hotel ballroom in the Indonesian capital to watch the ceremony.

Among the most excited was Ati Kitjanto, a former classmate of Obama's at the Muslim Jalan Besuki school.

"We're very excited that somebody who was in my class and lived in Indonesia has made it this far," Kitjanto said in a telephone interview. "We feel like some of his personality was molded somehow when he was in Indonesia."

Kitjanto said that an Obama-led White House would surely look on countries in Asia and around the globe with greater sympathy than the Bush administration did.

"We're very happy that someone who understands and respects other nations leads America," she said.

Obama's message sparked a different reaction in the Middle East, where many Arabs said they didn't expect much change in a U.S. foreign policy they blamed for the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Israel's assault on the Gaza Strip.

Ahmad Abdul-Raheem Mezel, 30, a resident of the Iraqi city of Fallujah, voiced a common view, that Obama would do little to improve the lives of everyday Arabs.

"I do not think that Obama will bring any good or prosperity to our life since the former administration spent six years promising that without making any of that come true," Mezel said.

"Maybe he will try, but he won't be successful, as there are many strong hands behind curtains that control him. He has not become U.S. president without satisfying those hands."

About two dozen black Iraqis in the southeastern town of Basra, however, cheered Obama's inauguration.

"Electing a black president is a victory for mankind and all the poor and unjust people in the world," said Abdul Hussein. "This moment is a great moment, morally and materially, because this moment challenges all the bad systems that were oppressing humanity."

In the Gaza Strip, where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were still digging out of the rubble of Israel's three-week war on the militant Islamic group Hamas, few shared the rest of the world's hope for change under President Obama.

As Obama began his inaugural address, most of Gaza City was shrouded in darkness, the war having cut electricity to more than half the Gaza Strip.

Hours earlier, Mahmoud Nimer, a young Hamas supporter, expressed frustration at Obama for not condemning an Israeli offensive that killed more than 1,300 Palestinians, two-fifths of them civilians, according to Gaza medical officials.

"He kept totally silent about what was happening here," Nimer said. "I don't expect anything good from him."

Israelis in Jerusalem's bar district appeared more interested in the day's soccer games than the inauguration, but Yossi Zachs, a 24-year old clothing store owner, stood on the street outside a bar glued to a television screen broadcasting the ceremony.

He said he had completely forgotten about the inauguration but was mesmerized by what he saw on the screen.

"I passed by and was hypnotized because this is history," Zachs said.

While Israeli media warned that Obama would be cooler in his support for Israel, Michelle Dardashti, a 28-year-old rabbinical student, said the new president would be an improvement over the Bush administration.

"I don't think Bush was good for Israel," Dardashti said. "Having a man who was so hated leading the country helping Israel didn't help. Someone who is respected will help Israel more."

Official Russian media, however, struck a fearful tone about Obama, predicting the state of U.S.-Russian relations would remain shaky for years to come.

"In my opinion, Russia does not trust the United States at all now," read a newspaper opinion piece by the head of a pro-government research organization.

"The experience of the last 20 years has borne a strong and widespread conviction that constructive policy, concessions or support to Washington do not bear any dividends, are pointless and sometimes downright harmful."

Others recognized Obama's victory as a landmark event that would advance racial equality.

A black community center in London's racially mixed Tottenham neighborhood organized eight hours of events built around Obama's victory.

"If you're not American today, you wish you were," said Stephen Brooks, 44, the manager of a program that aims to raise academic and social aspirations of black boys in Britain. "This is phenomenal."

Like others watching the big screen in the theater of the Bernie Grants Arts Center, Brooks acted as if he were attending the inaugural in person.

He said the Lord's Prayer along with the Rev. Rick Warren, belted out verses with Aretha Franklin and even tried singing along with the instrumental arrangement by John Williams.

When Obama finished his oath of office with the words "so help me God," Brooks was on his feet, whooping and cheering as the theater erupted.

Diana McKenzie, a 37-year-old nurse from London, said she called in sick at work to attend the events. The crowd booed when President George W. Bush was shown arriving at the inauguration, but McKenzie, sitting in the back row of the theater, offered a backhanded compliment.

"He made it possible," McKenzie said of Bush. "If he wasn't so bad, Barack wouldn't have been (elected)."

Bolivians in the Plaza Murillo at the heart of the South American country's capital La Paz knew what was happening thousands of miles to the north. After all, their country had elected their first indigenous president, Evo Morales, three years ago.

Even Indians from rural areas knew that the U.S. was getting its first black president.

"He's not like the other presidents, just like we have our first Indian president," said Gladys Sanjinez, a mother of two, referring to Morales.

Pele Choque, a 44-year-old salesman, said, "Obama shows that we need to give the same options to all people, regardless of color."

However, cell phone vendor Sergio Nina warned that some indigenous Bolivians have become disenchanted with Morales and warned that Obama might not face an easy path.

"The United States' economic problems won't be solved just because someone has a different color of skin," Nina said.

Obama's inauguration didn't strike any passions — at first — in a Cairo restaurant, where mostly Nubians from southern Egypt chatted in small groups over cups of cardamom-scented coffee and the bubbling of water pipes.

When the cameras showed Barack Obama strolling forward to take the presidential oath, however, the chatter stopped and all eyes were fixed on the monitor.

Kitchen staff in their flowing orange robes poured into the dining area. A couple stopped their fervent whispering and turned toward the TV. The manager, a burly man in an ill-fitting suit, puffed on a cigarette as al Jazeera began its simultaneous Arabic translation.

"I, Barack Hussein Obama . . ." the new president said. The dining room filled with gasps and laughter.

"Hussein! You see? Hussein!" the manager yelled, coming out of his seat. "He said Hussein, right?"

"Yes, yes, he said 'Hussein,'" the waiters assured him.

"Hussein. Ha! They have a president whose father's name is Hussein!" the manager crowed.

The waiters and customers traded high-fives and hugs. The manager passed out cigarettes in celebration.

As the Star-Spangled Banner played, customers returned to their spicy chicken dishes, and the restaurant staff began clearing teacups.

Mohamed, a young Nubian waiter with dimples and gelled hair, said he was proud of Obama but would reserve judgment until he'd seen what the new president could accomplish in office.

"I like him now, but I still don't know him," Mohamed said with a shrug. "We'll wait and see."

(Tim Johnson in Chengdu, China; Hannah Allam, in Cairo; Shashank Bengali in Gaza City; Tyler Bridges in La Paz, Bolivia; and Tom Lasseter in Moscow contributed to this article. Trenton Daniel of The Miami Herald contributed from Baghdad. Also contributing were McClatchy special correspondents Cliff Churgin in Jerusalem; Eric Munene in Nairobi, Kenya; Julie Sell in London; Mahdi al Dulaymi in Fallujah, Iraq; and Ali al Basri in Basra, Iraq.)

MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

Obama opens new era for America, the world

Sens. Kennedy, Byrd leave Obama lunch in medical distress

Bush, his approval rating in tatters, flies home to Texas

McClatchy inauguration coverage

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service