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Obama's Middle East speech missed 'historic opportunity,' say many Arabs

While those involved in Arab uprisings welcomed Obama's support, others were disappointed with his failure to apologize for US support for Middle East dictators.

By Correspondent / May 19, 2011

Egyptians watch on television President Obama's Middle East speech, at a coffee shop in Cairo, on Thursday, May 19.

Amr Nabil/AP

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Cairo

President Obama pledged American support for pro-democracy uprisings in the Middle East Thursday, trying to put the US on the right side of history as he laid out his vision for US involvement in the region after the Arab Spring.

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Those from nations where opposition movements are fighting brutal crackdowns welcomed the president’s messages of support. But what was billed as a major speech left some in the region nonplussed. They said that the speech didn’t cover new ground, was short on policy prescriptions, and that the president missed a chance to apologize for America’s history of supporting the dictators people revolted against.

“Obama really had an opportunity to reshape and reframe the debate and ... he gave it away,” says Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, adding that there was nothing distinctive or imaginative about the address. “This speech was an opportunity to say to Arabs, ‘We as Americans made mistakes, we did not support democratic aspirations as much as we should have, but we’re going to do better.’ Obama didn’t say that.”

Marked difference from Obama's 2009 Cairo speech

The muted response to the speech differed markedly from the widespread interest and pockets of hope generated by Obama's landmark speech to the Muslim world from Cairo two years ago. Many felt that Obama has failed to follow through on the promises he made in 2009, and declined to give him another chance.

The protests that began six months ago have imparted to Arabs a strengthened sense of independence, even as subsequent uprisings have stalled with a bloody conflict in Libya, prolonged and brutal crackdowns in Syria and Yemen, and the near-total crushing of a protest movement in Bahrain. Obama said that the US aimed to throw its full weight behind supporting those uprisings.

“It will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy,” he said, calling this moment a "historic opportunity" after years of accepting the status quo. “We have embraced the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator. There must be no doubt that the United States of America welcomes change that advances self-determination and opportunity."

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