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Barack who? Arabs weigh in.

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

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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.

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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 beforeā€¦. 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.

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