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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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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."