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.

By , Correspondents of The Christian Science Monitor , Correspondents of The Christian Science Monitor

Ahmad al-Shugairi, host of a popular Saudi television show about Islam, gets excited just imagining the idea: If he had the chance, what would he advise US President Obama to say in his address to the Muslim world on Thursday?

"I've dreamed of being his adviser," enthuses Mr. Shugairi, as he begins listing ideas that "would hit home" with him.

Mr. Obama should "admit the United States has made mistakes"; emphasize that Americans have "a belief in God that is written on the US dollar"; and stress that Americans "respect all religious prophets, including [the prophet] Muhammad," says Shugairi, a resident of Jeddah. Obama stopped in Riyadh on Wednesday to meet the Saudi king. [Editor's note: The original version misstated Mr. Shugairi's city of residence.]

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When the US leader steps to the podium in Cairo June 4, his target audience will be the world's estimated 1.4 billion Muslims. They'll be listening with curiosity to the first American president with a Muslim father.

His toughest crowd, however, will be in the Middle East, where US foreign policies are most disliked. Obama's rhetoric has generated high expectations. But his reception here will be heavily salted with skepticism. Arabs wonder whether US policies will really change on core issues of concern to the region: US withdrawal from Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and political reform of authoritarian governments.

"Actions please, not words. I am tired of rhetoric," says Nagwan Al Guneid, an employee of the French oil company Total in Sanaa, Yemen. "This ever-promised change of Obama's should be solid and clear in his foreign policy."

According to a recently released Arab public opinion poll by Middle East expert Shibley Telhami, of the University of Maryland, and polling firm Zogby International, 77 percent of Arabs have an unfavorable attitude toward the US, which they rank second after Israel as the world's biggest threat.

Overall, only 45 percent had a favorable view of Obama. Still, an average of 51 percent in the six Arab countries polled expressed hopefulness about US Middle East policy.

"This is not a love affair," said Dr. Telhami during a discussion of the findings at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. "This is, 'We're interested. We think we like this guy. We're prepared to listen.'"

A separate poll by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland showed particular skepticism among Egyptians, 81 percent of whom thought Obama's goals "probably" or "definitely" included imposing American culture on Muslim society. Seventy percent said he aimed to weaken and divide the Islamic world.

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."

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.

The Qatar-based TV station Al Jazeera reported on Wednesday that Saudi-born Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden criticized Obama's Mideast policies in a new recording.

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.

The Obama administration has signaled a potentially significant shift in this passive US posture, stating explicitly in the last week that they want a complete freeze on settlement expansion. Israel has pointedly refused, citing prior understandings with the Bush administration.

Palestinians are eager to hear what Obama will say, though some have already made up their minds.

"Nothing will change," says Abu Ahmed, a Palestinian taxi driver in the Syrian capital of Damascus, where initial excitement about Obama's election has visibly waned. "Obama may be the president, but power is elsewhere and the Zionists always get their way at our expense."

The outlook of other Palestinians is not so bleak, however. Mohammad Said, owner of the Al-Isra Supermarket in the West Bank town of Al Bireh, says that he is "looking forward to hearing Obama in Egypt because so far this man has stood against the Israelis only with words. I am anxious to hear him say that America will impose practical measures against the Israeli government if it continues to build settlements.

"I want Obama to make me trust America," Mr. Said adds. "This country has only helped Israel and has never helped the Palestinians. I want Obama to say that the occupation is an obstacle to peace in the Middle East."

Desire to hear about values, not chronic problems

Of all the constituencies that Obama will be aiming to reach, it is young people that matter most in a region where those under age 15 make up as much as one-third of the population. These youths are the ones most frustrated in finding jobs, getting a good education, speaking their minds, and realizing political aspirations. Some become foot soldiers for extremist movements.

Deeply devoted to their faith, they want Islam to provide the framework for their societies, even as they draw selectively from Western culture.

In Cairo, Sondos Assem – a young woman with a stylish head scarf who works for a publishing house – thinks that Obama's speech could be a good first step toward rebuilding trust between the US and the Islamic world. But a major concern of hers is that Obama's visit not signal support for President Hosni Mubarak, an octegenarian who has ruled Egypt for 28 years.

"I hope Obama's choice does not indicate his acceptance of the despotic status quo in Egypt and the region," Ms. Assem says.

Saudi writer and professor Mohammad Al Khazim says that while government leaders will want Obama to talk about "chronic problems," like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, "intelligent people ... want to hear something about elections, freedom, women's rights – these are values people think about when they look to America.

"But if he talks about these values he will upset the leaders," Mr. Khazim adds. "That's why I think it will be a difficult speech for him."

Laura Kasinof in Sanaa, Yemen; Nuha Musleh in Ramallah, West Bank; and Julien Barnes-Dacey in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.

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