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Egyptians Welcome Obama, But Want More Than a Speech

New America Media, News Report, Juliet Blalack Posted: Jun 03, 2009

CAIRO -- True to their usual hospitable treatment of guests, Egyptians welcome Pres. Barack Obama's visit tomorrow and generally approve of his diplomacy. Still, there is a touch of realism to their outlook as bloggers, activists, and citizens of all sorts insist the Middle East's problemsparticularly Palestineneed more than a good speech.

Egyptians are split between the hopeful and the wary when asked how they see Obama's approach to Palestine. Among the hopeful is Hanna Salh, 29, who says Obama was the first U.S. president to request concessions from Israel before negotiating with the Palestinians.

Salh, who works in a photo shop, is anticipating what Obama will say about Palestine in his speech. While the Egyptian joke goes that Israel is the United States 51st state (or its daughter, depending on who you ask), many Egyptians see Obama as asserting a new independence in his efforts to engage both sides.

"Obama represents a historic, although short-term, chance for the Arabs," wrote Lamis el Hadidi in the Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Yom. If we can take advantage of it, it will change history.

"What is this chance? This president can come to the region. . .without even asking for Israel's permission, something unprecedented in U.S. history."

However, the Egyptian media have also widely criticized the Obama Administration for remaining silent on Israel's bombardment of Gaza last year, even after Amnesty International issued a report detailing the Israeli Defense Force's use of illegal weapons and targeting of civilians.

"Washington's excessive concern about the human rights situation in countries like China and Cuba demonstrates a cynical attitude as it tolerates Israeli gross human rights violation of the Palestinians under occupation," wrote Ayman El-Amir in the state-run newspaper, Al Ahram.

Blogger Abdul Rahman Mansur not only asserted that Obama's silence on Israel's treatment of the Palestinians was hypocritical, but also criticized Obama's implicit support for Mubarak's government.

"Choosing Cairo (to give your speech) is a generous reward for the Mubarak regime, which has not succeeded in the past 25 years in holding, not even one, truly democratic and fair election," he wrote in the pan-Arab publication, Al Arabiya.

An employee at a local craft business network, who asked to remain anonymous, expressed similar dismay at Obama's choice of venue.

"Egypt has tons of problems with everyone. Why would you choose a country where people are suffering?" he said. He suspected it might be a deal between the Egyptian and U.S. governments.

Although Egyptians know their government is corrupt, and many live in dismal conditions, they still see their country as the appropriate site for an address to Arab and Muslim nations because of its role in diplomacy.

"Whenever two Arab countries have a problem they come to Egypt and the (Egyptian) president finishes the problem," said another resident, who declined to give his name.

However, the Obama Administration stated that the president is coming to address the people of these nations, not their leaders. He would be wise to tap into the expectations of ordinary Egyptians and particularly the youth.

Mansur also urged in the same article that Obama meet with opposition movements in Cairo, lest he let his plans be informed solely by those who uphold the status quo Obama is promising to change.

When Obama was elected into office, Egyptian Shaabi singer Shaaban Abel Rahim recorded a song warning, "let us not dream too early, so the dream will not become a nightmare."

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