What Arabs want to hear (or not hear) from Obama speech

In contrast with Obama's major speech two years ago in Cairo, today's address on the Middle East has generated little interest in Egypt. But Libyans and Syrians have higher hopes.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom
President Barack Obama speaks during a DNC fundraiser at the Boston Center for the Arts May 18.

Ahead of President Obama’s major address on the Middle East today, many Arabs were not even aware that he is going to present his vision for US involvement in a region transformed by the Arab Spring.

But when asked what they would like to hear, their responses ranged from a desire for the US to stay out of their affairs to pleas for help, particularly from those still oppressed by dictators in Libya and Syria.

“Obama is giving a speech?” asked downtown-Cairo newspaper hawker Mahmoud Hamza. “Why? We don’t want anything from him. We got rid of [former President Hosni] Mubarak without him, and now we don’t want American interference in Egypt.”

Indeed, in a marked difference from the widespread interest and pockets of hope generated by Obama's speech in Cairo two years ago, many Egyptians are resentful that the US only belatedly supported their uprising against Mr. Mubarak. Now, many Egyptians envision a more independent country and a much smaller role for the US.

Emad Gad, an analyst at Cairo's Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, says it would be wise for Obama to voice support for the uprisings in Libya and Syria. In those countries, where members of the opposition movements are fighting for their lives, some want something very different from Obama: support, or at least strong criticism of their autocratic leaders.

Libyans' high hopes

Libya’s opposition has high hopes for the speech, after three months of popular uprising and armed insurrection against Muammar Qaddafi's regime.

Rebels say they want Washington to recognize their Transitional National Council in Benghazi – and to help enforce International Criminal Court arrest warrants for the Libyan leader, his son, and his intelligence chief if they are issued in coming weeks.

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“Obama is the single most influential person on the planet currently and his every word will have a direct impact on our cause,” says one opposition activist in the Libyan capital, who could not be named for security reasons. “[Opposition] morale in Tripoli is directly associated with gains on the front line, NATO bombing in Tripoli, and diplomatic and political pressure from the international community.”

“So yes," the activist adds, "the US is ... very important to our cause, very influential on morale in the city and for our quest for freedom.”

Syrians' mixed feelings

And in Syria, where the regime's brutal crackdown has killed hundreds of civilians, some called for the US to exert more pressure. This week the US imposed sanctions on President Bashar al-Assad and other senior regime officials.

"I want [Obama] to condemn events on the ground in Syria rather than ignoring it. We need more international action," says a young female teacher in Damascus.

Yet even in Syria, some rejected the idea of US involvement. "I don't want Obama to say anything about the Arab world. The US only makes problems here and right now we as Arabs are doing things ourselves," said one middle-aged businessman in the capital.

Bahrainis' disappointment

Bahrainis in particular have become embittered by Washington's failure to condemn their government's violent crackdown on demonstrations and subsequent campaign of intimidation and retribution against all dissent. The tiny kingdom is home to a key US naval base and several citizens said today that they did not expect Obama to pressure Bahrain’s rulers.

Scott Peterson in Istanbul and a correspondent in Damascus who could not be named for security reasons contributed reporting.

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