In Mideast, Obama faces tough crowd: Here's what they want to hear
The president stopped in Saudi Arabia, where 79 percent of residents view him favorably, on Wednesday. But in Cairo tomorrow, he'll address a skeptical audience of 1.4 billion Muslims.
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An audiotape released Tuesday and attributed to Al Qaeda's No. 2, Ayman Zawahiri, castigated Egyptian officials for turning their country into an "international station of torture in America's war on Islam."Skip to next paragraph
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Why Obama chose Egypt
Egypt was a logical choice for the speech, most observers say. With 80 million people, it is the most populous Arab state and an important player in Islamic and Arab affairs, though its influence has waned in recent years due to internal economic and political problems.
"This is a very important and historical moment for the United States to build a serious and organic bridge between Arab and Islamic culture and American culture," says Nabil Abdel Fattah, assistant director of the Cairo-based Ahram Center, a think tank with ties to the government.
"We are one of the two or three oldest peoples and nations in the world," he says. "Obama was correct to choose Egypt as the location to address the entire Islamic world."
The president has seeded the ground for his Cairo speech with conciliatory remarks toward Muslims, first in his Inauguration Day address when he urged relations built on "mutual interest and mutual respect" and then in a January interview with the Saudi-owned television channel Al Arabiya. Speaking in the Turkish parliament in early April, Obama stressed that the US "is not and never will be at war with Islam."
En route to Cairo, Obama visited King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. In private talks, the two leaders were expected to discuss Iran's nuclear ambitions and how best to cooperate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Palestinian: 'I want Obama to make me trust in America.'
The White House has sought to dampen expectations that Obama will unveil a detailed plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But there will be widespread disappointment if he does not lay out – at least in general terms – a new approach to the six-decade conflict. More than 60 percent of respondents in the PIPA poll thought that creating a viable Palestinian state was "probably" or "definitely" not a goal of Obama's.
"The most important issue in the Arab world is the Palestinian issue, and people want to know what is new in this administration regarding it," says Essam el-Erian, a prominent member of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, a banned but officially tolerated opposition movement.
Most Arabs feel the issue has been handled unfairly by successive US administrations that have favored Israel. Most crucially, US leaders have not enforced a halt to the growth of Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank – land on which Palestinians want to build an independent state.