Arabs Shift Gears

Does Obama’s new policy towards Islamic and Arab countries stretch ambition beyond reality?

News | Linda Eid | July / August 2009

"A new beginning." That is how U.S. President Barack Obama addressed his Muslim and Arab audience, Jun. 4, from the Major Reception Hall at Cairo University, Egypt. The speech was hailed as a step towards mending American-Islamic relations and a declaration of a new commitment to peace in the Middle East.

In his discourse, Obama called on uniting forces against violent extremism, referring to wars on Afghanistan and Iraq and pointing out that the U.S. intends to "help Iraq forge a better future and to leave [it] to Iraqis." He addressed the situation between Israelis, Palestinians and Arabs, highlighting the need to stop violence. On tensions with Iran, he reaffirmed all nations’ right to peaceful nuclear power and America’s commitment to that goal.

The United States "does not presume to know what is best for everyone," Obama claimed, but also that democracy, the rule of law and equal administration of justice, are human rights for everyone. He stressed the necessity to allow for religious freedom and women’s rights and closed with a call for cooperation towards economic development and opportunities in education as well as in science and technology.

Reactions to this approach seemed generally positive; it was frequently described as "an historic speech."

"We want Obama to rule Egypt," one Egyptian asserted on the U.S. State Department’s global live Web chat. But this does not tell the whole story. More lies beneath the applause and good will, especially after Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu’s response. Indeed, many Arab academics and journalists seemed unmoved by the rhetoric, as expressed bluntly by the pro-Democratic Egyptian group Kefaya (enough), which went so far as to compare the speech to a "carbon copy of Bush’s speeches, but with new, more politically correct, terminology."

What can be asserted though, is that many Arabs were left confused. It had been easier for them to develop a clear-cut stance towards Bush, and his "axis of evil." The leading pan-Arab newspaper, Asharq Al Awsat, admitted that the U.S. President said precisely the things that Arabs wanted to hear, though he spoke "as though he was the master of the world."

Many were particularly upset with the Obama’s remarks concerning the Israeli – Palestinian conflict, stressing the "unbreakable bond" between Israel and America before declaring that only resolution to satisfy both would through the formation of two states.

Asked by reporter about "the hawks of the Israeli government," Obama compared Netanyahu to 37th President of the U.S. Richard Nixon going to China when no Liberal could make that trip:

"I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu… in some ways may have an opportunity that a labor or more left leader might not have," Obama said. "Now, it’s conceivable that [he] can play that same role."

Not everyone agreed, especially following Netanyahu’s speech on Jun. 14. Despite endorsing for the first time the principle of a Palestinian state, he both refused U.S.’ demand to freeze Israeli settlements and attached several conditions to his country’s acceptance of such a neighbor: a complete demilitarizing and recognition of Israel as the Jewish state, with sovereignty of Jerusalem. This meant that Palestinian refugees would have to stop hoping to come back to Israel and would not acquire the East part of the holy city as their capital. The Palestinian government rejected this proposal, but also asked the world not to be fooled by it.

"Netanyahu’s speech closed the door to permanent status negotiations," said senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat.

Not only was the Arab audience divided towards both Obama’s and Netayahu’s speeches, but so were the Israelis. As their Prime Minister spoke, protests took to the streets, demonstrating both for and against the U.S. president and his new pro-Arab policy.

The issue of Palestinian refugees takes the problem beyond Israel’s borders. "Netanyahu’s speech killed Arabs’ rising hope after Obama’s words," Lebanese MP Alain Aoun told the The Vienna Review. "Lebanon cannot handle the relocation of Palestinians," a predictable result of the uncertainty of their return to Israel. Obama’s speech showed a real "will for peace," he said, but it faces many challenges and needs to be reinforced with actions.

"A solution to this issue can not be implemented if any player is excluded," added Aoun. "A conference between Arabs, Israel and the U.S, preferably sponsored by the EU can lead to a lasting resolution. Signing peace treaties does not solve the problem fundamentally."

In Iran the situation reflects ambivalence as well. Following the elections that renewed the ruling of Ahmadinejad, massive demonstrations that flood the streets objecting to the results were fiercely dispersed with brutality, as police struggled to establish control and prevent future gatherings.

Though Obama was measured in his statements towards the Iranian authorities, he did condemn violence against demonstrators. The reelected Iranian President accused Washington of interfering in the election results after-the-fact, and asserted that this endangers Obama’s pursuit of improved relations between both countries.

"They keep saying that they want to hold talks with Iran ... but is this the correct way? Definitely, they have made a mistake," said Ahmadinejad.

But what do the numbers say about Arab views of Obama’s efforts?

According to a Gallup poll, released Jun. 1, approval of U.S. leadership is up in several Arab countries since Barack Obama took office; in Egypt, however, it has jumped by 19%, credited in part to his choice of Al-Arabiya TV for an on-air interview.

However, as journalist Salameh Nematt, of the news portal the Daily Beast explains, many Arabs either remain undecided about Obama, or show low ratings of approval for the U.S., which remains around 25%.

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