Nader Hashemi: What Obama must say (and do) in Egypt
On June 4, 2009, President Obama will travel to Egypt to deliver his long-awaited speech on relations between the United States and the Muslim world. From the outset the venue has been subject to speculation and debate.
Muslim pro-democracy activists were hoping that Obama would deliver his talk in Jakarta instead of Cairo, partly in support of recent gains for democracy in the world’s largest Muslim nation but also as a rebuke to authoritarian regimes who will register a public relations victory by hosting the new American president. Now that the venue has been decided there are three things that Obama must do if he wants his message to penetrate through to a deeply skeptical Muslim audience.
While in Egypt Obama must hold a town-hall meeting with ordinary Egyptians. Ideally, this meeting should take place — not at the American University of Cairo (an elite institution where the rich and famous send their kids) — but at Cairo University or perhaps at a local mosque, where attendees are more representative of the Egyptian mainstream. Critically, guarantees must be given that the exchange will be open and uncensored and that those who might ask difficult questions will not be persecuted by the security forces when cameras are turned off.
The symbolic value of such an event cannot be overstated. The sight of an American president, in open and uncensored dialogue with ordinary Muslims, will go a long way toward demonstrating respect for the Islamic world. A major grievance that Muslims have is that senior US officials only meet with the ruling elites and rarely with representatives of more popular forces. If President Obama is genuinely interested in bridging the chasm between the US and Muslim societies then he must meet and speak directly with the Muslim mainstream, not solely with the dictators who rule over them.
Secondly, Obama must address the central identity issue in the Arab-Islamic world today: the question of Palestine. No topic has generated more resentment and separated the United States from Muslims over the past sixty years more than this issue. It is vital that in his speech Obama acknowledge in unambiguous terms that the Palestinian people have the same human and national rights as Israelis, including the right to live in peace and security.
Muslims well remember Obama’s statement last July in Sderot. To wit, if his daughters were subject to daily rocket fire he would do everything in his power to stop it; thus expressing sympathy for the Israeli policy on Gaza. This of course begged the question, using the same analogy: If the President’s daughters were refugees who could not return home, stuck in one of the most densely populated areas of the globe, and subject to an ongoing siege, would Obama also do everything in his power to alleviate their suffering? In short, failure to speak in moral terms about the plight of the Palestinians, as well as to clarify his plans to bring this conflict to a just conclusion, will be a massive setback for his Muslim outreach initiative.
Finally, Obama must offend, albeit indirectly, his Egyptian hosts. There is a real irony in the leader of the free world delivering a major speech to Muslims in one of the least free parts of the world. Hosni Mubarak is not only one of the longest-standing dictators in the Arab world, he is also one of the most despised, in part due to his close alliance with the US but also due to his internal repression and his collusion with Israel in maintaining the siege on Gaza.
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