Obama Mideast Speech Faces Disappointed and Disillusioned Arab World

The volatile region is increasingly less optimistic about U.S. role.

ByAlexander Marquardt
May 19, 2011, 6:35 AM

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.

Obama Mideast Policy Speech Facing Skeptics in Arab World

U.S.-led peace talks fell apart in September and little progress has been made since. Obama's Mideast policy speech today at the State Department is not expected to lay out a new way forward, clearly a losing gambit as Israelis and Palestinians dig into their respective positions; Israel refusing to negotiate with a government that now includes Hamas, and Palestinians moving ahead with its plan to get international recognition for a state at the United Nations in September.

The failure to get the two sides to sit down was highlighted Sunday when thousands marched toward Israeli borders from Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank to mark Nakba, the day of "catastrophe" when Israel was created 63 years ago. The marches were unprecedented in scope, and left at least 15 people dead.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet with Obama Friday and address Congress next week. His trip is not expected to yield anything that will get the peace process back on track.

Meanwhile, uprisings continue across the region with varying levels of U.S. involvement: material support for NATO-led airstrikes in Libya, sanctions for Syria's leadership, condemnation of the violence in Yemen and Bahrain.

It is its attitude toward Bahrain that attracts particular scorn for the United States, a country that imported troops from other Gulf countries, notably Saudi Arabia, to help put down an uprising by the Shia majority. Bahrain is famously home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, fueling the perception that the United States only supports democracy when it's in its interest.

"This is a proof that it is a not consistent policy as a matter of fact," Cairo professor Nafaa said. "In Libya, there's military intervention. In Syria, there's sanctions. It's a double standard and we have noticed that."

America's favorability rating has gone down across the board in the past two years, except in the Palestinian territories, where it is up slightly to 18 percent, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center of eight Muslim countries such as Turkey and Indonesia.

Here in Egypt, arguably the most important country in the Middle East, it is 20 percent. "Obama's a beautiful speaker, he gives great speeches," American University of Cairo student Randa Ali said. "At this point I'm only interested in action."

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