What Obama will try to accomplish in Cairo

His speech should aim to launch a new dialogue between two estranged communities of the world, some regional experts say.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    On Wednesday in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah gave President Obama a gold necklace called the King Abdul Aziz Order of Merit, the country's highest honor. Mr. Obama continues his travels in the Middle East Thursday with a stop in Cairo, where he will deliver a major speech to the Muslim world.
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As President Obama prepares to deliver his long-awaited speech to the Muslim world Thursday from  Cairo University, he is being pulled in multiple directions and called on to address scores of issues in his talk.

Yet one question hovers over everything: Is rhetoric enough, or will Mr. Obama have to offer substantial policy initiatives to further the speech's stated goal of improving America's poor standing in the Muslim world?

"Rhetoric is not enough, and Barack Obama recognizes it won't be enough," says Fawaz Gerges, a scholar of Middle Eastern studies at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. "At this point, most Arabs and Muslims are looking to President Obama to translate his rhetoric into concrete policies," Mr. Gerges says: "settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, a policy that demonstrates America's respect of Islam, and diverting the US from Muslim dictators and rulers who have held back their own people while bleeding their governments dry."

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In the days leading up to Obama's speech, much of the focus has been on what the president should and shouldn't say. Speak directly to the Muslim people, some Muslims and experts in the region say. Don't let the authoritarian governments that rule many in the Islamic world – including the Egyptians who will host the president – off the hook, they add.

No, focus on the one issue closest to the hearts of many Muslims, others say: the Palestinian question.

Better yet, if the goal is to break down walls between Islam and the West, flatter your audience with repeated references to the accomplishments of Islamic culture and its contribution to universal progress, still others say. And yet others advise Obama: Don't plead or please, but challenge – challenge Muslims to move their societies forward and challenge governments to trust freedom to allow Muslim people to better their own worlds.

But some regional experts say that the speech should not be viewed so much in terms of prescriptions for American and Muslim actions but rather as the launching of a new dialogue between two estranged communities of the world.

"Yes, the speech has to have substance, but essentially it should be viewed as a framing speech," says Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. "He's looking to frame a different discussion between the Muslim world and the West, rather than announcing a new set of initiatives."

Pre-speech hints from the White House suggest that something along those lines is in fact the president's intent. "We don't expect everything will change after one speech.... It will take a sustained effort, and that is what the president is in for," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Tuesday.

"What we want to do is open a dialogue," Obama told the BBC before heading off for Saudi Arabia, his first stop on a trip to the Middle East and Europe.

And in a briefing with traveling members of the press in Riyadh Wednesday, White House speechwriter Ben Rhodes said the speech reflects the president's desire to reduce the divide between two worlds that could both profit from overcoming fears and working together.

"He feels it's important to speak very openly and candidly about the very full range of issues that have caused some tensions between the United States and the Muslim world, and then also present a great deal of opportunity for partnership in the future," Mr. Rhodes said. He added, "[T]he president will be making a broader point that, in some sense ... we've let differences drive a lot of relationships instead of the things we hold in common."

Mr. Alterman says Obama's Cairo speech should be seen in the context of other major addresses he's given, both before and after his election and on such big themes as race, religion, abortion, and bridging ideological divides.

"To a remarkable degree, this is a president who is not only comfortable with big ideas, but who feels a need to discuss them," he says. "Essentially, he seems to feel that America's relations with the Muslim world have been misframed, that there is greater hostility and suspicion between the two than warranted, and he feels a need to get them back on track."

One factor in Obama's favor is the interest and even approval he is beginning to build among Muslim populations. A number of recent polls suggest that while Arabs and Muslims maintain largely negative views of US policy toward their regions, their views of Obama are beginning to warm.

A new WorldPublicOpinion.org poll, published on the eve of Obama's speech, finds Egyptians with considerably more positive views of Obama than of President Bush – although they maintain very negative views of US policy and generally associate Obama with those policies. "Egyptians appear to be saying, 'Show me you are really different,' " says Steven Kull, director of the poll, which is a project of the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes.

What such polls suggest is a "credibility gap" between Obama's image among Muslims and the image of the United States, says Gerges of Sarah Lawrence. And that gap should be viewed as an opening for Obama to "take risks," he says: "He should address bluntly the grave crisis facing Muslims in terms of the political repression so many live under, the challenges to human rights and the rule of law."

But Obama, he says, should also move beyond the perception that America has "maintained the oppressors" to affirm that "America will help you to gradually open up your closed societies."

Yet even that kind of message is likely to be received with skepticism if it is not backed up by a sustained effort, some activists in the region say.

Ahmed Saleh, an Egyptian democracy advocate who has been jailed under President Hosni Mubarak, says that his country experienced a kind of "spring" in rights and freedoms after Condoleezza Rice, then secretary of State, gave a speech on democracy in the Middle East in Cairo in 2005.

"The pressure of that speech did lead to an opening up on freedoms and expression, and some people started to have a better image of the US," says Mr. Saleh, who was in Washington last month. "But then expectations fell to the ground" – notably after a Western retrenchment following the Hamas victory in Palestinian elections in 2006, he says. "And it won't be automatic that Obama regains the people's trust," Saleh says.

Alterman of CSIS acknowledges that Obama does not enter an easy environment for his speech – this is not Berlin in the summer of 2008. But the president has shown he is "not afraid to address difficult topics," he says.

He expects Obama's speech to include "challenges to governments and challenges to individuals." He adds, "[Obama] wants to start the dialogue on tough issues like the gulf between governments and individuals in the region, or just what is meant by 'the Muslim world'... and I don't know how you do that other than delivering messages that make people think."

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