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Middle east

Obama's Cairo speech to seek healing of US rift with Muslim world


Latest update : 2009-06-04

US President Barack Obama will fly early on Thursday from Saudi Arabia to Egypt to give a much-anticipated address at Cairo University. The speech has been crafted to narrow the chasm between America and Islam.

REUTERS - U.S. President Barack Obama was in Egypt on Thursday to repair U.S. ties with the Muslim world in an address that will be crucial to his efforts to win the support of moderate Muslim countries.

His speech is aimed at more than 1 billion Muslims across the world but choosing Cairo underscores his focus on the Middle East, where he faces big foreign policy challenges.

Obama arrived in Egypt from Saudi Arabia, where he had held talks on issues including the Arab-Israeli conflict. The U.S. president is due to hold talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak before delivering his speech.

Obama wants to build a coalition of Muslim governments that will back his efforts to revive stalled Middle East peace talks and help the United States curb Iran’s nuclear programme, which Tehran says is peaceful but the West says is to build bombs.

U.S. officials told reporters on Wednesday that Obama would talk candidly and thoroughly about a range of issues that had “caused tensions between the United States and the Muslim world”, and explain his policies toward Afghanistan and Iraq.

The address is part of a broader effort to rewrite U.S. foreign policy that under Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush alienated allies and fuelled a wave of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world, although the president said this week it would not be an apology for the Bush administration’s policies.

Obama has vowed to chart a new path in U.S. relations with Muslims, offering ties based on “mutual interest and mutual respect”, after the former Bush administration’s campaign against terrorism, with its invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, was seen by many Muslims as an assault on their faith.

Bush launched what he called a “war on terror” after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States by al Qaeda, whose leader, Osama bin Laden, sought to upstage Obama when he was in Saudi Arabia at the start of his Middle East trip.

Bin Laden said in comments broadcast on Wednesday that Obama had planted the seeds of “revenge and hatred” among Muslims with his support for a crackdown on Taliban strongholds in Pakistan.


Obama acknowledged this week that it would take more than a speech to reconcile the United States and the Muslim world.

”There has been a breach between America and the Islamic world and that breach has been years in the making. It will not be reversed in one speech, it is not going to be reversed perhaps in one administration,” senior Obama adviser David Axelrod said.

Many Muslims agree. After watching Obama give his first presidential television interview to an Arab station and a speech in Turkey in April, they want more than lofty rhetoric.

”If he stops these foolish policies (of Bush) and starts to build a new bridge between America and the people, not the regimes of the Islamic world, it will be a good step,” said Essam el-Erian, a senior member of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

”It will take time to achieve or change the promises from speech to actions, but we are waiting,” he said.

Muslims want specifics on how he plans to change U.S. policy in the Muslim world that for years emphasised military support to mostly authoritarian governments rather than development aid.

How well Obama’s 45-minute speech is received will largely depend on what he says about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the issue the Muslim world cares most about. Muslims view the United States as uncritically pro-Israel.

”Egypt hopes that the speech will contain serious approaches to deal with the essence of the relations between the Islamic world and the United States and this is the issue of peace in the Middle East,” Egypt’s presidential spokesman, Suleiman Awad, said in remarks published before Obama’s arrival.

Many Muslims want him to explain his vision for Palestinian statehood and take a tougher line with Israel, which rebuffed his calls for freezing settlement expansion in the West Bank.

”He will discuss in some detail his view on the conflict and what needs to be done to resolve it. He will discuss both what that means in terms of Israelis and Palestinians and the United States and the Arab states as well,” his speech-writer, Ben Rhodes, told reporters on Wednesday.

Obama chose Cairo for his speech, aides said, because it was the heart of the Muslim world. But some worry about his choice.

Egyptian human rights activists and others fear it could be seen as an endorsement of Mubarak, in power since 1981 and whose government has cracked down on opponents.

Date created : 2009-06-04