Obama Mideast Speech Faces Disappointed and Disillusioned Arab World
The volatile region is increasingly less optimistic about U.S. role.
May 19, 2011— -- When President Obama speaks today on the so-called Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa, many people in the region either won't be listening or will take what he says with a large grain of salt.
Obama will encounter a deeply skeptical audience; the confidence and hope generated by his speech to the Muslim world here almost two years ago have now faded with the perception that he has failed to deliver on his promises and U.S. policy in the region remains unchanged.
As uprisings have spread across the region from Tunisia to Bahrain, many critics say, the Obama administration has been slow to act, if at all. Combined with a lack of progress on Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in particular, the U.S. role has been increasingly seen as irrelevant.
"The Egyptian people and the peoples of the region have invested much in Obama," Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at the University of Cairo who attended the speech in 2009, said. "They expected he would be able to do something to improve the current situation in the Middle East but he did nothing, as a matter of fact.
"If I have some other things to do [during the speech], I prefer to do them rather than listen to the speech because I don't expect something that will make the difference with the American policy that he's been doing until now."
Sensing a change in the region, Obama wrote in August a five-page memo for top staff called "Political Reform in the Middle East and North Africa," according to New Yorker magazine, which obtained the memo.
"Our regional and international credibility will be undermined if we are seen or perceived to be backing repressive regimes and ignoring the rights and aspirations of citizens," Obama wrote to Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, among others.
Such fears became a reality on Tahrir Square, Cairo's now iconic intersection where millions gathered during the revolution and fought off former President Hosni Mubarak's security forces. America's image was tarnished from the first day, Jan. 25, when Clinton said the Egyptian government was "stable and looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people."
Security forces descended on the Tahrir sit-in that night, using tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the protesters. "There is really nothing Obama can say that will make me change my opinion," Gigi Ibrahim, a prominent activist from the Egyptian uprising, said. "They are the reason why we've been suffering, backing up these regimes. There's just really nothing for me to change my mind."
A week after the protests started, Obama emphasized that "an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now." But as far as the Egyptians on Tahrir were concerned, the damage was done; Obama was trying to have it both ways and they continued to call for the downfall of Mubarak, the agent of America.
In his Cairo speech, Obama also spoke of the unbreakable bond between the United States and Israel, as well as the "intolerable situation" Palestinians face. "America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own," he said.