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Obama's stature among Muslims slips over Israeli-Palestinian standoff

A year after Barack Obama's famous Cairo speech, failure to make headway in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become a focal point for disappointment among Muslims. Sixty percent of Arabs say he's too weak to deliver a peace agreement.

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Activists wanted more democracy reforms

Obama's cool approach to democracy promotion has not gone unnoticed, however.

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Regional democracy activists complain bitterly that the Obama administration has not pressured the region's undemocratic regimes to enact reforms, as the Bush administration did in 2004-05 before backing off.

Egypt is a key example: US funding for democracy programming in Egypt has been cut, while the US agreed to fund only nongovernmental organizations approved by the Egyptian government.

The Obama administration is also considering creating an endowment for Egypt to would lock aid in for 10 years, making it less likely for Congress to withhold aid to punish the Egyptian regime for its human rights failings.

Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian democracy activist who lives in exile after being sentenced for "defaming" Egypt, says Obama's policies are harming democracy movements in the Middle East. "We have to fight our own battle for democracy," says Dr. Ibrahim, now a visiting professor at Drew University in Madison, N.J. "But the least the great powers can do is withhold their support from tyrants."

Some recognize it is too early to fully judge the Obama administration's policies in the Middle East. But Mustapha Kamal al-Sayyid, an independent analyst and political science professor at the American University in Cairo, says the US has weakened its hand in the region with its retreat on the settlement issue and its failure to improve relations with Syria or change Iran's behavior.

"The leading powers in the regions are those who are opposed to the US – Iran, Syria, to a certain extent Hezbollah – those are the actors that take the initiative and who influence the course of events in the region. Friends of the US do not take initiative, and are not capable of setting the agenda in the region," he says.

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Obama pledged to advance a new era of US policy in the Middle East, one based on mutual interest and respect. But his inability to make headway, especially on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has opened the way for other regional actors – such as Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah – to wield more influence.

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