Obama’s speech in Cairo on June will mark the third time he has addressed the Muslim world, seeking partnership and conciliation with Muslims jaded by George Bush’s unrelentingly belligerent and humiliating “war on terror” policies and his divisive, poisonous rhetoric.
In his first major interview to Al-Arabiya, Obama proclaimed: “My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy.”
Yet, Obama’s choice of Egypt is an implicit endorsement and validation of Mubarak’s dictatorship, and it reiterates the oft-spoken but albeit true cliché in the Muslim world that US merely covets selfish policy interests instead of democratization, autonomy and self determination by and for the Arab and Muslim people.
“Obama chooses a reliable dictatorship,” Wajahat Ali, Information Clearing House, 12 May, 2009.
I have written on the problems posed by an Obama visit to Cairo (though in a slightly different context); I maintain those reservations towards the “symbolism” and meaning of such an address in Cairo. Having heard embassy staff slobber about the “deep meaning” of such an address depending on its location and visual composition of his address, one is partly concerned that the visit has no strong meaning based on any of the actual stated principles the government would like, outside of reassuring the Egyptians that the US perceives it as among its strongest Arab allies and will support the Egyptian government in a more congenial way than the previous administration. An American official who works on what basically comes up to [rather crude] public relations told me: this will be important for our relations with European Muslims and Muslims everywhere. In the first place the notion that the US needs a special or enhanced relationship with European Muslims (unless this individual was referring to Kosovars, Albanians, Bosnians and the like) is rather strange.¹ Aside from that, the Cairo speech will offer significant insight into the administration’s intentions and circumstance vis-a-vis the Arabic-speaking Middle East. Very often, in this blogger’s view, the relevance such happenings have in the broader Muslim world are exaggerated. But the relevance it may have to how the administration approaches the Muslim world will be half-way significant, depending on the content of what Obama says and how he says it. But it will not, I repeat, will not show any Muslim or any Arab what the United States plans to do in the Arab or Muslim worlds. What has been seen recently, as the piece notes, is a continuation of material ties between the United States and Egypt. And it is well known that the Egyptians are most concerned that the Americans perceive them as the primary power in the Arab world and behave accordingly. Thus, the emphasis on the Arab-Israeli dispute, the possible resolution of which will not yield many positive results for anyone but those directly involved (and this does not include the average Egyptian or Algerian). Such efforts re-enforce pre-existing relations between the United States and the states in the region. What the administration says the “Muslim world” it means allied governments whose staff and populations are Muslim. Reference to much of anything else is diplospeak and represents half-measures, such is the heart of the American relationship with most countries and these especially. Unless real changes begin, outside of rhetoric, the administration’s actual policy remains obscure. If the president is bold enough to speak to the concerns of Egyptians and Muslims, beyond the ruling castes, it may signal change. But that much is unlikely.
1. It is something one finds commonly in the State Department, that the US needs to reach out specifically to Muslims in Western Europe and that these populations are approximate or similar to Muslims in Muslim-majority countries in worldview or mentality. For sure there are many connections, but one is forced to question (as one who has taken part in outreach programs between American and European Muslims) the intelligence in treating European Muslims as if they were not, well, Europeans. We will have to wait sometime for the large European states to be overtaken numerically by their Muslim minorities (though of course some more than others).