For the Arab world, Obama didn’t go far enough

Reactions to the US president’s address in the region were muted among most scholars, bloggers and social media.

Protesters fill Egypt's Tahrir Square Cairo 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany)
Protesters fill Egypt's Tahrir Square Cairo 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany)
US President Barack Obama on Thursday invoked the killing of Osama bin Laden as a chance to recast relations with the Arab world and said the top US priority was to promote democratic change across the Middle East. But reactions in the region were muted.
Shadi Hamid, director of research Brookings Center Doha, said Obama’s words were not ambitious enough.
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“My prediction on Obama’s speech: Arab leaders won’t like it much. Arab reformers won’t like it much,” he wrote on his Twitter feed. Later he posted, “Obama says it will be US policy ‘to support reform across the region.’ Reform, of course, is not same thing as democracy.”
Thursday’s speech was the American president’s first major attempt to put the anti-government protests that have swept the Middle East in the context of US national interests. He hailed the popular unrest as a “historic opportunity” and said the US future was bound to that of the region now caught up in unprecedented upheaval. He also ratcheted up pressure on Syrian leader Bashar Assad, saying for the first time that he must stop a crackdown on protests and lead a democratic transition “or get out of the way.”
On social networking sites, the dominant sentiment among Arab users was that Obama said too little about his plans for achieving an independent Palestine.
“Absolutely no surprises or anything new on Palestine in Obama’s speech,” tweeted Yousef Munayyer, director of the Palestine Research Center in Washington.
“Do people in Arab world want to hear more of this hectoring or do they want to hear the US is ending its interference in their region?” wrote Ali Abunimah, cofounder of the website Electronic Intifada.
But one Middle East scholar said Obama went farther than any of his predecessors in outlining a vision for a Palestinian state.
“It is very significant,” Robert Danin of the Council on Foreign Relations told Reuters. “For the first time, the United States has articulated what the territorial basis for a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians should be and explicitly identified the pre-Six Day War line as the basis for the borders. This has never been done before... This is a significant development and this is, in effect, an embrace of the Palestinian position on borders.”
In his speech, Obama also referred to the death of Osama bin Laden at the beginning of the month.
“We have dealt al-Qaida a huge blow by killing its leader,” he said. “Bin Laden was not a martyr, he was a mass murderer... Bin Laden and his murderous vision won some adherents, but even before his death al-Qaida was losing its struggle for relevance.”
However, he reserved some of his harshest words for Syria.
“The Syrian regime has chosen the path of murder and the mass arrest of citizens,” he said. “The Syrian people have proven their courage in choosing a transition to democracy.”
Internet access has been severely restricted during the two-month-long Syrian uprising, and social media reactions from the country were few. Still, one Twitter user in Damascus under the name “flying–wing” wrote that with his speech, “Obama gave Assad a new chance to kill the Syrian people.”
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Other users in Syria wrote that surprisingly, the country’s official television network was carrying the speech. CNN’s Hala Gorani, however, tweeted that Damascus’s ambassador to Washington had not been present in the room during the address.
Islamist groups also voiced their disappointment.
“A disappointing speech. Nothing new. American strategy remains as is,” Essam al- Erian, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, told Reuters.
“American cover for dictatorial presidents, in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain remains as is. Perhaps the sharpest tone was towards Libya,” Erian said. “American promises are just promises. There is no decisive decision to immediately withdraw from Iraq or Afghanistan. Threatening Iran remains the same.”
Reuters contributed to this report.