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Mr. Obama, Cairo U. is ready for its close up.

Cairo University preps for Obama's big speech to the Muslim world.

By Liam Stack / June 2, 2009



CAIRO – Cairo University is prepping for its close-up.

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Water the grass? Check.

Paint the broken concrete curb a shiny new black? Check.

Polish the giant dome? Check.

More police check points? Check.

On Thursday, President Barack Obama will take the stage at Cairo University to deliver a long-awaited address to the Muslim world in which he is will attempt to smooth relations after years of tension.

There are high hopes in the Arab world, in particular, that the American leader will unveil a new Palestinian-Israeli peace proposal. Some Arab leaders – such as Jordan’s King Abdullah II – see this US administration as offering a new window of opportunity.

Initially, both the US and the Egyptian government had planned for Mr. Obama to speak at Al Azhar, a 1,000-year-old mosque and university that claims to be the world’s oldest. Thousands of students come here from around the Muslim world to attend Al Azhar.

But, reportedly for security reasons, a site on the other side of the Nile was chosen: Cairo University.

The university is one of the oldest secular institutions of higher learning in the Arab world. With 200,000 students, it is also the largest university in Egypt. And its often the site of pro-democracy demonstrations.

“I think it’s a great choice,” says Abeer Soliman, a feminist blogger and former newspaper columnist, who is also a Cairo University alumna. “It is a secular place where you go to learn and study science, and he is a secular guy.”

At first, Cairo University wasn’t considered a viable option because its students are in the midst of final exams. But to the consternation of some, President Obama’s historic address to the Islamic world has pulled rank on the academic calendar: Exams have been postponed.

“This will screw up our whole work schedule for days,” says Leila Soueif, a math professor who called the security preparations “unforgivably annoying.”

News of the decision leaked to Egypt’s largest independent Arabic-language daily, Al Masry Al Youm, long before an official announcement was made.

By last week, an army of workmen and security agents had been deployed to turn it into a campus fit – and secure – for a president.

Laborers in plastic sandals climbed the sides of the giant dome that sits atop the university administration building, polishing it with rags and buckets of soapy water. Far beneath them, plainclothes police officers stalked the grounds and soldiers in white summer uniforms manned the gates, meticulously checking IDs as clusters of irritated students waited their turn.

No one seems to have told them, though, that Obama’s visit here was supposed to stay a secret.

“You here Obama visit?” asks one soldier, in broken English, looking up from a handful of student IDs.

“Ah, yes, sir.” But when I identify myself as a reporter, I am quickly escorted off campus.

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