Analysis: Egypt to get boost from Obama's address to Muslim world from Cairo
"Arab countries are looking for the US to stand more or less at an equal distance from both sides."
By BRENDA GAZZAR
Egypt can't help but gloat over the selection of Cairo for US President Barack Obama's address to the Arab and Muslim world on June 4.
"Many capitals in the Islamic world throughout Africa and Asia would have been happy to have been chosen by Obama," declared Osama Saraya, editor-in-chief, in Sunday's Al-Ahram daily newspaper.
"The selection of Cairo affirms the fact that Egypt... is the heart of the Arab and Islamic worlds. And she is the voice of wisdom and reason that has helped the region overcome crises."
It is also a cause for celebration for many average Egyptians, who are fascinated by Obama's rise to power and even see him as a potential savior for some of the region's worst ills.
"We, in Egypt, love him," Cairo bookstore owner Hisham Hamdi Youssef exclaimed to an American journalist. "His statements are good. It shows he is a just man and does not differentiate between religions."
Even Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has spoken highly of the new US leader, telling Israel's Channel 1 on Monday that "he is knowledgeable in all his matters, he behaves logically... and he listens to the ideas of the countries that he deals with."
Indeed, Obama's selection of Cairo offers the most populous Arab country a much needed boost as its power and influence are increasingly challenged by certain countries in the Islamic world.
"It sustains and consolidates Egypt's position in Middle East politics, being recognized by a superpower as the center of the Muslim world," said Gamal Abdel Gawad, head of the international relations unit at the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies. "This is definitely a plus for Egypt and for the Egyptian government."
Iran, a rising power in the region, has led the challenge to Cairo's traditional leadership role and influence in the Middle East.
Egypt, a staunch US ally, was particularly vulnerable to verbal attacks during Israel's recent three-week military operation in Gaza for its decision to keep its Rafah border crossing with the Strip closed, save for certain humanitarian cases.
Mubarak has offered stern warnings against any "regional interference," messages apparently directed at the Shi'ite country.
In addition, Egypt has accused the Iranian-backed Hizbullah of organizing a terror cell and plotting attacks on its soil.
"It's a challenge for any power, when its influence is directly challenged by some other rising power, in this case Iran," Gawad said.
But despite this, he argues, "Egypt is still a major player in the moderate bloc of the Arab world."
Expectations throughout the Muslim world of Obama's orientation toward the region are considerably high.
His speech is the beginning of "a new stage" in relations between the United States and the Islamic world "after these relations reached the worst stages in the era of the previous president," Saraya wrote in his editorial.
"The American president wants to mend what the previous American administration had spoiled when it insulted more than 1 billion Muslims by repeatedly attacking Muslims and stigmatizing Muslims with terrorism," he wrote.
The 22-member Arab League hopes to hear from Obama that his administration "will be evenhanded and will be an honest broker between Arabs and Israelis," said Abdel Aleem al-Abayad, a spokesman for the Cairo-based Arab organization.
"What's important is that the US be serious, to remember that George Bush was a disaster, and to be seriously involved in any Palestinian-Israeli and Arab-Israeli peace talks," he said.
In addition, the Muslim world is hoping that Obama will further articulate and develop his Middle East policy, particularly on the peace process, Gawad of the Al-Ahram Center said.
Everyone is waiting to hear his view on the Arab-Israeli conflict and particularly the Palestinian issue, he said.
It's not about wanting the US to pressure Israel to make concessions, he added.
"It's about the US being careful to develop an independent position and policies vis-a-vis the Arab-Israeli conflict," Gawad said. "What Arab countries are looking for is that the US is more independent and tries to stand more or less at an equal distance from both sides in the region.
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