Obama selects Egypt, a risky choice, for speech to Muslims

McClatchy NewspapersMay 8, 2009 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will visit Egypt on June 4 to deliver a long-planned speech aimed at convincing Muslims worldwide that the U.S. isn't at war with their faith.

Egypt is a strategic but politically risky choice for such a venue. With more than 83 million people, it's the most populous nation in the Middle East.

However, the Egyptian government, led by 81-year-old President Hosni Mubarak, is widely criticized for its authoritarian rule, corruption and human rights abuses, issues that are likely to provoke criticism of his choice to speak there, and that will require him to walk a careful line between promoting democratic values and criticizing his host.

The speech is expected to be delivered in Cairo, historically an Arabic center of intellectual thought in the Muslim world, but the location hasn't been finalized, according to White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

Gibbs called Egypt "a country that in many ways represents the heart of the Arab world" and said the speech won't be aimed at Muslim leaders so much as it will be at the populace.

It represents "a continuing effort by this president and this White House to demonstrate how we can work together to ensure the safety and security and the future well-being through hope and opportunity of the children of this country and of the Muslim world."

The State Department's most recent human rights report said that Mubarak's regime routinely abuses human and political rights, employing torture, detaining hundreds of people without charges or trial, including political opponents, restricting freedom of speech and the press, and rigging elections.

"The government's respect for human rights remained poor, and serious abuses continued in many areas," said the report for 2008.

Gibbs acknowledged that "the issues of democracy and human rights . . . are on the president's mind," and said "we'll have a chance to discuss those in more depth on the trip."

The choice of Egypt over other nations with large Muslim populations, such as Indonesia, where Obama spent years as a boy, was, Gibbs said, "not about who the leaders might be of any certain country.

"This is about the way the president views this relationship, the way he thinks this country should view that relationship and the shared and common progress that we can make to strengthen that relationship and fight extremism."

While Egypt has bred some notable terrorists, including al Qaida's No. 2, Ayman al Zawahiri, it's not considered a magnet or haven for terrorists, in part because Mubarak's government has cracked down on militant Islamists, who in 1981 assassinated his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, for making peace with Israel.

After Egypt, Obama will travel to Germany, for a June 5 visit to Dresden and the Buchenwald concentration camp, which a great uncle of his helped to liberate, then on to France on June 6 for the 65th anniversary of D-Day.

The Egypt speech is likely to be compared with then-candidate Obama's speech last summer to an estimated 200,000 Europeans gathered in Berlin, where he called for a new era of trans-Atlantic cooperation.

"Obama has created a combination of curiosity and excitement throughout the Middle East," said Jon Alterman, the director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research organization in Washington. Alterman said that Obama's youth, his middle name, Hussein, and his ability to convey a sense of respect to Muslims are all parts of the equation.

"He embodies change in a region where many people are terribly thirsty for political change."

At the same time, Alterman said he expects the Egypt speech to have a more "personal" imprint than the one in Berlin — more like Obama's campaign speech on race last year — perhaps drawing on his own experiences in Indonesia or his late father's Muslim heritage.

Obama's speech is also likely to be compared with one that Condoleezza Rice gave in Cairo as Secretary of State in 2005, when she called on Egypt to lead the Arab world toward democracy. Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, had cool relations with Egypt, especially after Mubarak imprisoned a potential rival, politician Ayman Nour.

The coming speech follows Obama's declaration last month, when traveling in Turkey, that the U.S. isn't and never will be at war with Islam, and his video message to Iranians on the Persian New Year expressing his desire for a new diplomacy.

There's some political risk in Obama's selecting Egypt for launching his appeal for better relations with the Arab world.

Mubarak's 28-year regime is despised at home and around the region for its close ties with the U.S.; for being the first Arab country to make peace with Israel; and for employing iron-fisted methods to suppress dissent and maintain its lock on power.

At the same time, Egypt is traditionally regarded as the most politically influential and powerful nation of the Arab world. The al Azhar University, established in Cairo more than 1,000 years ago, is considered the principal Sunni Muslim center of learning and jurisprudence.

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