Muslim praise for Obama dries up a year after Cairo speech

McClatchy NewspapersJune 3, 2010 

CAIRO, Egypt — A year ago Friday, President Barack Obama stood in Cairo and vowed "a new beginning" in a speech about how he'd change U.S. relations with the Muslim world. Egyptian vendors sold T-shirts portraying Obama in King Tut regalia, and Muslims throughout the region thrilled at his middle name: Hussein.

Now, many Muslims in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East say they're dismayed that the promise of the speech has fizzled into U.S. policy-as-usual toward the region: civilian deaths in Afghanistan, an unstable Iraq, no pressure for reforms on Washington-friendly autocrats, no resolution for Guantanamo prisoners and no end in sight for the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Israel's deadly raid in international waters on an aid flotilla en route to break the siege on Gaza - and Obama's tepid response, in comparison to the condemnation of other world leaders - cemented perceptions for many of unconditional U.S. support for Israel. Some Arab commentators and bloggers said Obama no longer deserves his Nobel Peace Prize.

"His speech at Cairo University was wonderful and raised hopes that America was on a real path to changing its policies," said Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo University, where Obama spoke. "But Obama's practices afterwards guaranteed that he is weaker than he seemed during his speech."

Gallup surveys conducted between February and April of this year showed a dramatic decline in Arab countries' approval ratings of the U.S. administration. In Egypt, where he delivered the speech, the poll showed that Obama's popularity dropped by 18 percentage points. While some Middle Easterners said it was unfair to judge the president so early on issues that have persisted for decades, others said they definitely expected more in the year since his oratory olive branch to Muslims.

"There were a lot of illusions about Obama because he has African and Muslim roots," said Aya Mahmoud, 22, a student at Cairo University. "Turns out the speech was all just hype."

The White House is well aware of the level of frustration in the region, having monitored U.S. policy steps since the Cairo speech as well as how Muslims in the United States and abroad perceive those efforts.

Consulates and U.S. embassies in various countries held roundtables for months after the Cairo speech and forwarded input through the State Department. The White House's Office of Public Engagement has sought input from American Muslims. The administration monitors overseas press and international polling.

Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told McClatchy that roughly once a month, Obama also asks his staff specifically for Cairo updates, to monitor progress.

"He said, 'I want to make sure that I'm keeping promises I made in this speech.' He's said that to me, to several of us, repeatedly," Rhodes said. "He knew this would raise expectations and an ambitious series of goals. We knew what we were getting into."

So far, Rhodes conceded, "We've made progress on some issues. We obviously have a lot further to go as well."

Rhodes touts being on target to remove combat troops from Iraq this year and reshaping U.S. rhetoric on Iran and Al Qaida so as not to emphasize the Muslim religion. He also said the administration has expanded education, science, business and technology outreach with Muslim nations as promised.

The centerpiece of Muslim grievances remains the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which was exacerbated by Israel's continued construction of settlements on Palestinian lands, a key obstacle for progress on peace negotiations.

Obama also wants more progress between Israelis and Palestinians, Rhodes said, but believes he has made inroads and is committed to the effort.

"None of us expected we'd resolve it within a year of the Cairo speech," Rhodes said. Obama "doesn't give up on things he really cares about, and this is one of those things."

Rhodes said Obama remains committed to closing Guantanamo, a symbol of mistreatment for many Muslims, but couldn't give a deadline.

The fatal Gaza flotilla confrontation has only hardened many Muslims' anger toward Israel. Obama's been "too tolerant," said Diaa Rashwan, an analyst at the Cairo-based Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a state-backed research institute.

"The American administration's response was in no way appropriate" Rashwan said. "It did not show its other allies how much they cherish their relations. If the situation were reversed and Turkey had attacked Israel, the American response would not have been so passive."

Rhodes defended the White House stance. "There is no zero-sum equation as it relates to America's support for Israel and its security, and our outreach to the Muslim world and our support for Palestinian aspirations," he said.

The administration also continues to support the autocratic rulers in Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf countries, a fact widely noted by Arab commentators. In Central Asia, U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan have killed Muslim civilians, drumming up support for militants.

In Cairo, Obama pledged "to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear." But many Muslims abroad feel that religious discrimination persists. Even the crowning of a Miss USA of Muslim and Arab descent - at first cheered on by fans in the Middle East - turned sour when the beauty queen was accused of having ties to the Hezbollah militant group.

May Meneisy, 21, a political science senior at Cairo University, was in the audience for Obama's appearance last year and recalled him as "charismatic and strong." She said there were more student exchange programs and intercultural dialogues - the West was once again interested in Egypt and other parts of the region.

"Unfortunately, this shift did not occur on the political level as well."

(Special correspondent el Naggar reported from Cairo, Egypt. Talev reported from Washington. Hannah Allam contributed from Baghdad, Iraq.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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