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Across Middle East, a sense of possibility after Obama speech

While they expect action, many warmed to words that bespoke a knowledge and appreciation of Islamic culture.

By Caryle MurphyCorrespondents of The Christian Science Monitor, Liam StackCorrespondents of The Christian Science Monitor, Ilene PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 5, 2009

Palestinians watch US President Barack Obama's speech on television at their house in the Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, Thursday. Obama appealed for 'a new beginning' between Muslims and America.

Eyad Baba/AP



For Khalil al-Anani, President Barack Obama's speech today could signal an historic turning point.

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"Today might be the 12th of September, 2001, because I think he closed that chapter of 9/11 and called for a new chapter in U.S. relations with the Muslim world," says Mr. Anani, a political analyst at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

"He did his job, and now it's the responsibility of the Muslim world to react to those good intentions," adds Alani, a former visiting fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

His positive response to President Obama's 50-minute address at Cairo University was shared by many others.

"It was a balanced speech," says Mohamed Kamal, a member of Egypt's Shura Council (upper house of Parliament), who was among the 3,000 invited guests seated in the university's elegant theater, where Obama made his appeal for "a new beginning" between Muslims and America. 

"It talked about the US responsibility in improving relations [with] the Muslim world," observes Mr. Kamal. "But it also talked about the responsibility of the Muslim world. So it's a shared responsibility."

Millions more throughout the region viewed the speech live on television, including patrons at Wadi El Nile cafe in downtown Cairo.

In a Cairo cafe, quiet attention

The crowd there gathered slowly. But by 1:10 p.m., when Obama stepped to the podium right on time, the small coffee house had filled with men smoking hubbly-bubblies and drinking sweet tea. Their faces – curious but not excited – turned upward toward the TV on the wall.

Afterward, most expressed appreciation of the US president's remarks.

"He has a very good vision," said Mohammed Mahrous, a bank employee, adding that he most liked Obama's mention of the contributions made to human civilization by Islamic culture.

Amal Salem, who nodded his head in agreement with Obama a couple of times, said afterward that he was happy to hear that he "put aside the label 'terrorist' and made a distinction between terrorists and Muslims."

But not everyone was impressed.

"Americans are all liars!" blurted out one heavyset man in a blue shirt, to no one in particular.

Others, far from Cairo, but who were definitely intended targets of the president's remarks, also rejected Obama's conciliatory stance.

Speaking shortly before the US leader began his speech, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said people in the Middle East "hate America" because of its history – much of it recent – of interference in the region.

"The nations of this part of the world deeply hate America because during many years they have seen violence, military interference, rights violations, discrimination from America," Ayatollah Khamenei said in a televised speech. "Even if they give sweet and beautiful talks to the Muslim nation, that will not create a change."

Obama also made a deliberate effort to highlight his personal experiences of Islam, mentioning that "I have known Islam on three continents," and that his "father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims.