Middle East Muslims Like Obama’s Words but Want to See Action

Middle East Muslims Like Obamas Words but Want to See Action

There was plenty of enthusiasm across the Muslim world for President Barack Obama’s Cairo speech Thursday, although much of it was tempered by a withholding of judgment until talk of change is translated into action. And there were mixed feelings about whether policy changes would be forthcoming and on Arab and Muslim responsibility to help bring it about.

The only crowds TIME could find watching the speech in Lebanon were Hizballah supporters in the city’s southern suburbs. “He is a respectful man, and everyone should respect him as a leader,” said Issa Kamal, a 25-year-old political-science student. “He’s much more flexible about Iran, about Pakistan, about the whole Middle East than crazy Mr. Bush was.” But Kamal and others feared that Israel and its backers in Washington would stop Obama from making the policy changes they desire. More immediately, they question his commitment to democracy, given his Administration’s warning that U.S. aid to Lebanon will be reviewed if, as is expected, the Hizballah-led opposition emerges dominant from Sunday’s election there. “They are contradicting themselves,” said Ali Sabra, 25, a waiter watching Obama’s speech. “They are interfering in Lebanon’s

The speech was not carried on state-controlled broadcast media in Iran, and only a handful of the people with access to satellite TV or the Internet were aware of it. “If the people here had really seen this,” said Mohammad-Ali Helali, 27, who watched it by satellite, “they would realize that the side that doesn’t want to have relations is Iran, not the U.S.”

Speaking at a rally to mark the anniversary of the death of the Islamic Republic’s founding leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, current Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei did not mention the Obama speech directly but said, “Muslim nations know that the sincerity of American officials will be proven when in practice they bring about change; sweet words and speeches won’t bring about change.”

But Mohammad Ali Abtahi, the reformist head of the Institute for Interreligious Dialogue, applauded Obama’s challenge to “this fabricated enmity between Islam and the West, [which] is based on misunderstanding and prejudice, so this is the first step
toward greater understanding and peace.” Abtahi said much would depend on whether Iran’s next President will be more interested in dialogue with the U.S. than in confrontation.

Out on the streets of Tehran, 25-year-old student Mohsen Ghasemi liked Obama’s talk of abolishing nuclear weapons. “We are totally in agreement with that and welcome that. Iran wants nuclear energy for peaceful purposes,” he said. “Abolishing nuclear weapons in the region will aide better relations between the nations in this neighborhood,” Ghasemi added, in a nod to Israel.

Those gathered in the auditorium at Cairo University, both political heavyweights and students, seemed uniformly impressed by Obama. Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa, often a staunch critic of U.S. policy in the Middle East, applauded Obama’s tough language on Israeli settlements in the West Bank. “A balanced approach is the best approach,” he told TIME. “The failure of policies are always linked with the biased approach. Now we see a balanced one. It was a very good speech.”

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit echoed Moussa’s praise. “Every word was important, especially his references to occupation and settlements,” he told TIME afterward. “The six points are great, and we wait for the implementation and the good work of America and Egypt.”

Others, however, were pleased that Obama hadn’t, in fact, aligned himself too closely with Egypt. Ayman Nour, a prominent former legislator and democracy activist jailed by the regime after finishing second in the 2005 presidential election, noted that Obama had not lavished praise on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian government. “We had worries about him getting involved in supporting some regimes, political orientations or tyrannical regimes in the Arab region, but he avoided that, and that is an accomplishment in and of itself,” said Nour. “We were expecting a detailed vision of the issue of democracy. We’ve received an incomplete meal, yet it is the kind of speech that you can build upon.”

Younger members of the audience were clearly energized. “I liked the part about the freedom of the woman,” said high school student Mahmoud Essam, 14. “Here in Egypt, a lot of women can’t go to work, and they don’t have freedom like the women outside.”

Nadine Medhat, 18, an economics and political-science student at the university who concealed her hair under a stylish beige hijab, was effusive in her praise of Obama. “There was definitely a problem, because since the 9/11 attacks, there was a tense relationship between America and the Middle East,” she said. “President Obama has taken an initiative to find out what Islam and the Middle East are all about … This would be a huge change in the U.S. foreign policy and would guarantee us a better future.”

But the consensus throughout the Middle East appeared to be that the real test of Obama’s promises would lie in the action of their implementation. As Abdulbari Atwan, editor of al-Quds al-Arabi, was skeptical. Obama has won Muslim plaudits by calling for mutual respect, vowing to leave Iraq and pressing Israel over a two-state solution, he noted. But, he warned, “the U.S. legacy, which is hated in the Muslim world, cannot be redressed with rhetorical words and phrases … The Arabs are fed up with false promises that were made by former administrations. We have a feeling that the Muslims’ honeymoon with Obama will not be long and that his rhetorical language will not produce an effective result.”

A new theme in Arab commentary, which will be welcomed in Washington, has been the warnings for Arabs to do their part in supporting a U.S. President who seeks positive change in the region. Mamoun Fandi wrote in the Palestinian daily al-Quds, “In the midst of this climate that represents a golden opportunity for the Arabs, we must not lose the sympathy and support of the United States, represented in its new President and new Administration. If we lose this time, the possibility of succeeding with any other U.S. Administration will undoubtedly be minimal.”

Another caution against euphoria and passivity came from Tariq al-Humayid, editor of the Saudi newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat. “Obama does not possess a magic wand for all the problems,” he wrote, citing the hawkish Israeli government and the posture of militant groups such as Hamas and Hizballah.

Yet, for all the caution, Obama seems to have brought the conversation between Washington and the Arab world to a turning point. That, says Abdul Rahman al-Rashid, director of the al-Arabiya satellite TV channel, is because the President has “convinced the inhabitants of the region that he is an impartial leader toward issues such as the Palestinian cause, a fair man in dealing with the Guantánamo prisoners, and a man who is not hostile to the region.”

Obama himself stressed that a speech can’t undo the damage of years of negative interaction. But his Cairo address may yet prove memorable in that it appears to have opened the way for a new beginning.

— By Scott MacLeod / Cairo, Andrew Lee Butters / Beirut and Nahid Siamdoust / Tehran
— With reporting by Rami Aysha / Beirut