Barack who? Arabs weigh in.

Senator Obama is an unknown quantity as he tours the Middle East.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

  • close
    Adel Mostafa: The Cairo resident says he hopes Obama will talk with Iran if elected.
    View Caption
  • close
    Positive: Ammar Abdul Ameer, a high-schooler in Baghdad, says that Obama 'doesn't want Iraq to be an occupied, destroyed country.'
    View Caption
1 of 2

Several copies of Barack Obama's "The Audacity of Hope" are prominently displayed in Jarir Bookstore here. They have not moved in weeks.

Browser Najla Khaled doesn't change that. Standing before the same shelf and lifting her full-face black veil to survey her choices, she grabs novelist Jeffrey Archer's latest release and walks away.

It's not that she dislikes presidential contender Obama. "I saw him on Tyra Banks's show and I think he has great opinions," says the 17-year-old high schooler. But his policies have not roused Najla, who's only heard "some random stuff ... here and there."

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

Senator Obama's campaign may have launched groundswells of hope, ardor, and optimism at home and in Europe. But at the start of his closely watched trip to the Middle East, the all-but-certain Democratic nominee is little known in the Arab world, and has yet to generate widespread interest or enthusiasm.

From Baghdad to Beirut, people said in recent interviews that they are unfamiliar with his policies, except for his plan to move quickly to pull US troops out of Iraq.

In general, they said they prefer Obama over the likely Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, whom they view as unsympathetic to Arabs.

But even those who like Obama's personality are not expecting him to initiate major turnabouts on US Middle East policies, particularly on the most contentious one of all, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"The only way that Obama will be better for us is that he will try to suck the life out of the Arabs through diplomacy, while Bush tried to do it through war," says Fathy Tantawy as he inspects a small carburetor on the table next to his tea cup in a Cairo cafe.

"When they look at the Middle East they all have the same thoughts, whether it's Obama or Clinton's wife or Bush or … who is that other guy on TV?" He pauses to think. "Oh yeah, McCain."

A vast and volatile region, the Middle East stretches from Atlantic-washed Casablanca to hill-encircled Tehran. It is home to 340 million Arabs, 65 million Iranians, and almost 6 million Jews in Israel.

The region is vital to US interests as the main source of the world's oil. It also is the birthplace of Islam and the hottest battleground in the global struggle between Muslim moderates and extremists.

Obdurately resistant to democratization, the area also contains some of the world's most vexing problems: Iran's nuclear-enrichment program, an unstable Iraq, a fractured Lebanon, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

All this in a part of the world where US influence and prestige have plummeted to new depths. Washington is blamed for failing to use its influence with Israel to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, in particular, to halt the spread of Israeli settlements in occupied territories.

The 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal deepened Arab disillusionment, leaving a carapace of cynicism and distrust that will be difficult for any future president to dislodge.

"Bush has been a disaster for the Arabs and anyone is better than him," says Hanna Sfeir, a young barber in Beirut. "I hope Obama wins and that he will treat the Arabs more fairly."

Many Arabs believe Obama would adopt a more impartial approach to the Middle East than McCain. "I think he is a bit more aware of our side of the story," says Eman F. al-Nafjan of Riyadh, who blogs at Saudiwoman's Weblog. McCain "makes us feel as though he doesn't even view us as human."

Still, Obama's ratings in the Arab world are a shadow of his strong European confidence ratings. Twenty-two percent of Jordanians expressed confidence in Obama, versus 23 percent in McCain, while in Lebanon, Obama got 34 percent to McCain's 26 percent. Egypt's rankings were similar, with Obama getting a 31 percent confidence rating against McCain's 23 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.

In the dusty Cairo cafeteria of Hurriya, or Freedom, ceiling fans spun in lazy circles on a recent weekend morning. A few dozen men sat reading newspapers and drinking small glasses of strong tea. There was little enthusiasm for the first black US presidential nominee.

"Obama is American, so his first goal will always be to make America more successful in the world, and no one can say what that will mean for us in Egypt and the Middle East," says Adel Mostafa, who wears his faith on his wrist, which bears a small tattoo of a Christian cross.

Mr. Mostafa says he hopes Obama's promise to talk to Iran, as reported in Egypt's media, is true. "That would make it easier for the Arabs to be relaxed with America," he says. "It's like an old saying we have here: If your neighbor is nice to your children, then you will like your neighbor more, even if he never talks to you."

In Iraq, where an Obama administration could mean dramatic change, most people are so consumed with daily struggles that they have not formed opinions about the candidates. Some don't even know their names. "Who?" responds a group of Iraqi teens in unison as they lounge in Abu Nawas Park by the Tigris River. The occasional US helicopter buzzes by overhead.

Reminded that Obama is making a bid for the White House, Ammar Abdul Ameer chimes in enthusiastically. "He doesn't want Iraq to be an occupied, destroyed country, like Bush does," states the high school student, adding that he hopes Obama will withdraw US troops. "He wants Iraq to be peaceful like it was before…. He will be an excellent leader."

Omar Hameed Mahmoud disagrees. Twice kidnapped and tortured by unknown groups, the only thing that matters to the policeman is whether the new commander-in-chief ensures security.

"The situation has gradually gotten better, and if they withdraw the US forces, then Iraq will collapse," Mahmoud says.

The biggest touchstone for Middle Easterners – Israeli or Arab – is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Last month, he got a warm reception by a large Jewish audience at an event sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Obama pledged strong support for Israel, even promising Jerusalem "will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided."

Amid an angry Palestinian reaction, he backpedaled the next day. But it is still remembered in the Middle East. Riyadh resident Ahmed Al Omran, who blogs at Saudi Jeans, labeled the speech "disastrous for the Arabs ... I think he went a little too far."

In the Gaza Strip, shopkeepers Kamal Shati says Obama has too much to prove. "I believe Obama will be worse than George Bush because he wants to show the Israelis that he's even better than Bush as a friend, and they will work for their interests on our shoulders," he complains.

But others are more willing to be optimistic. "I think it's time for a change," says Hazem Abu Shanab, the top Fatah leader in Gaza. "[The Republicans] have created new regimes in the region that use force instead of encouraging democracy."

One Gazan has gone so far as to volunteer on behalf of Obama. Ibrahim Abu Jayyab, a media studies major, tracks election developments closely and uses a free Internet program to phone voters in the US. "I phoned hundreds of random numbers and called on people to vote for Obama, because he is the man of the future," he says.

Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut, says that Obama evokes a "Kennedy nostalgia" among older Arabs who remember the period before 1967, when the US was "beloved" for opposing the colonial policies of European nations.

Obama may also be attractive to many Arabs, Salem notes, because of his ethnic background. "Because he is black and has experienced discrimination, he can feel the suffering of black people ... and the suffering of people outside his country," says Delshad Ali, an Iraqi Army officer.

The persistent false rumors that Obama is Muslim appear to create as much confusion in Beirut as in the US. "He has to be good for Arabs because he is a Muslim," says grocer Ahmad Abu Talib.

"He's not a Muslim, he's a Christian," says a customer.

"He can't be a Christian," Mr. Abu Talib retorts. "His middle name is Hussein."

Tom A. Peter in Baghdad, Ilene R. Prusher in Jerusalem, Safwat al-Kahlout in Gaza, Nicholas Blanford in Beirut, and Liam Stack in Cairo contributed.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...