Obama Leaves Mixed Legacy in Middle East 8 Years After Cairo Speech Gave Region Hope

PHOTO: President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tour the Sultan Hassan Mosque, June 4, 2009 in Cairo, Egypt.PlayMandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
WATCH President Obama Saying Farewell, Reflecting on Presidency

Mohsen Kamal still remembers how hopeful he was hearing President Barack Obama’s address to the Muslim world eight years ago. But as Obama leaves office, some of those who heard those words said his legacy in the Middle East hasn’t lived up to his promises.

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“We felt this was a historical moment that could happen once in a lifetime,” said Kamal, who along with other Egyptians studying in the U.S. in 2009 received an invitation from the State Department to attend the speech in Cairo and meet with Obama’s team, including then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “We were so excited, we brought Clinton flowers,” he said.

Kamal was enthusiastic about Obama, following his speeches, trips and decisions. He saw his election as the first African-American president as a victory for the underrepresented around the world.

For Kamal, Obama came to Cairo seeking “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”

He returned to Cairo a year after Obama’s speech. Then came Egypt’s 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak, which he saw as the real test of Obama’s promises. Protestors took to the streets, calling for Mubarak’s ouster. But Kamal was dismayed that Obama did not fully side with the protesters until Mubarak had stepped down.

“The Egyptian revolution destroyed [Obama’s] ideal image,” Kamal said, saying the Obama administration hesitated before siding with the people. “If you have principles you should not compromise.”

According to most recent polls by the Pew Research Center, Egyptians’ confidence in Obama slipped from 42 percent in 2009 to 29 percent in 2012.

Nadine Medhat, a student at Cairo University at the time who attended the speech, says Obama’s two terms were marked by “indecisiveness” and an inability to make swift decisions as crucial events unfolded in the region following the Arab Spring. She found this contradictory to the revolutionary tone of his speech.

After the ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in June 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry referred to his removal from power by the army as a restoration of democracy. The next year, Kerry expressed his support for the general-turned-president Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi shortly after taking office.

“I didn’t see that as support for democracy,” Medhat said.

Obama has voiced regrets about some of his actions in the Middle East. In an interview with Fox News last year he described the lack of planning in the aftermath of the ouster of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi as "the biggest mistake" of his presidency. In the same year, he told CNN how the war in Syria "haunts him", wondering what he could have done differently to end the killings and displacement in the war-torn country. He told CBS this month, though, that he did not regret drawing a "red line" over chemical weapons usage in Syria.

Obama said this month he stood by his remarks in Cairo. "I always describe that speech as aspirational and if you read the speech today there's nothing in there that I would disown," he told an Israeli interviewer.

Now, Medhat, the former Cairo University student, worries about what is yet to come under President-elect Donald Trump, whom Egyptian President El-Sisi was first to congratulate on winning the U.S. election.

“People here are not seeing it very positive,” she said. “Many fear that things will get out of hand and they worry about how he will deal with issues of democracy and authoritarianism in the region.”

Obama’s visit in 2009 was co-hosted by Al-Azhar, the highest institute of Sunni Islamic learning.

One of the members Al-Azhar attending the speech was Mahmoud Ashour, a former deputy at the institute.

“We were very happy and optimistic about his speech,” said Ashour. “He offered solutions for many problems facing the Arab world, he spoke wonderfully about the plight of Palestinians, but after the speech he did nothing,” said Ashour.

Despite Trump’s controversial anti-Muslim statements during last year’s presidential race, Ashour says he can’t judge him yet.

“Not everything said in presidential elections is what it seems to be,” he added.

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