Israeli eyes on Cairo

Is the world about to inaugurate a new era with one speech?

Obama cairo 248 NO 88 (photo credit: AP)
Obama cairo 248 NO 88
(photo credit: AP)
Dozens of municipal workers have spent days dusting the entrance to the Cairo University hall United States President Barack Obama will stroll through this Thursday. Youthful love messages have been wiped off the walls; the university's historic dome has been polished; city lights have been cleaned and the buildings the US president may glance at have been repainted. The streets, according to Cairo photographer Waleed Nassar, "are now as smooth as silk." Even the internal drainage system has been fixed in case Mr. Obama feels the need to make use of it. A half-day visit to an Arab country has not engendered such global anticipation in recent memory, as if the world were about to inaugurate a new era with one speech. Will Obama reveal an ambitious plan for the Israelis and Palestinians? Will he censure Arab leaders and call on the Arab world to democratize? Or will he speak in subtler tones: a well-crafted diplomat about to take his place among a long list of American presidents who failed to bring Israelis and Palestinians to a sustainable solution while helping to buttress regional leaders who have done little to support democracy, freedom and justice? Thousands of journalists are flying across the world to watch. Tens of thousands of articles have been written and the Arab press is rife with speculation. What is clear is that for seven hours on Thursday, the Egyptian capital will be graced with the presence of American's most popular president in generations, and Cairo is set to sparkle. But Mahmoud A-Shater, a shopkeeper near Cairo University, the site of Obama's speech, could not care less. A-Shater expressed exasperation with the Obama visit, likely to present him with extraordinary logistical constraints. "I dread the day [he arrives]," A-Shater said. "The government will shut down all the shops nearby as a security precaution." "I live a poor life and nothing is going well for me, my friends or my family," added Ahmed, a local bread peddler. "We want a new life, a life of hope, and if Obama can't do that for us, then who will?" he asked, suggesting that Obama was unlikely to press Arab leaders. "People are talking about his visit, but we are beginning to think he will be no different than Bush in supporting these corrupt and violent regimes." While Obama's decision to deliver a potentially historic speech to the Muslim world from Cairo was received with much enthusiasm in official quarters, from Islamist leaders to tax collectors interviewed by The Media Line, most Egyptians on the street seemed rather blasé about all the commotion, goaded by the idea of their capital being used by Obama as a platform for broad issues irrelevant to their lives. "We used to think of Obama as a kind of leader who could change our lives," El Shater said. "Now it looks unlikely he will speak to our needs." A poll of Egyptian public opinion released Wednesday by found that despite Obama's overtures to the Muslim world, Egyptians have maintained the same suspicion of American foreign policy: 67 percent of Egyptians believe the US plays a negative role in the world; 76% believe the US seeks to weaken and divide the Islamic world, and 80% believe that the US aims to control Middle East oil and impose American culture on Muslim countries. Dina Shehata, a political analyst at Cairo's Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, says it is doubtful Obama will be able to transform such positions. "He is coming primarily for strategic reasons," Shehata told The Media Line. "Egypt is at the forefront of regional players." Shehata argues that given Egypt's continued arrests of human rights advocates, it is doubtful Obama will address issues of democratization in Egypt, a topic more likely to win over Egyptian hearts and minds than quixotic plans for Middle East peace. "Democratization is a complex issue," she says, adding that "the region is too unstable currently to expect much" on this front. Young Egyptians express a similar level of skepticism about Obama's arrival. "I understand it will be difficult for him to speak out on all the issues we would like him to," declares Abdel Rahman Mansour, a young blogger and member of the Muslim Brotherhood. "But if he continues to allow these corrupt leaders to get away with things, it will be hard for Arabs to follow him." Egyptians' apathy and cynicism towards the potential meaning of Obama's visit sit in ironic contrast to the active angst emanating through the halls of power in Jerusalem. "We are very concerned in Israel and looking with some apprehension about what is going to happen in Egypt," Zvi Mazel, a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and State, and a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, told TML. "Most presidents in the past were quite clear: they gave their support to Israel and understood the danger that Israel faces… We are surrounded by 22 countries. "But now we're in a new situation," Mazel continues. "It's absolutely not clear what his aims are, and we don't like it." Obama was originally thought to be planning to unveil his plan for Israel to make peace with the Arab world with his Cairo speech. Although the White House has indicated that it has been pushed off for a different venue, all will be scrutinizing Obama's words for indications of what that final plan will contain. "There are some differences between us and President Obama," Mazel says. "We'd like to see if he's going to commit himself to something. "If his positions on the right of return, on Jerusalem or on the demilitarization of a future Palestinian state will be different from ours… we cannot accept all this pressure," Mazel continues, adding that this would lead Israel to believe it was "losing its best and most important pillar of support." Mazel argues that pressure on Israel would lead to broad instability in the country. "We cannot just leave the settlements, withdraw to the Green Line, and then there will be peace," he says. "All these issues must be solved in the framework of negotiations between us and the Palestinians." "The problem of the Middle East is much more complicated than many people think," Mazel adds when asked if he sees Obama as naïve. "President Obama tries to make us believe all these things can be solved. But the problem between us and the Palestinians is very complex, difficult and has been going on for a very long time. This cannot be [solved] in a matter of weeks and months." Asked if Israel would have preferred that Obama simply not make a landmark address in Cairo, the former ambassador is circuitous. "This speech is intended to make America more popular in the Arab world," he says. "This is very difficult and I do not personally understand why he decided to do it."