An American expert on Arab affairs evaluates President Obama’s Cairo speech from the Arab perspective and concludes that it is likely to prove much less “historic” than many Western observers tend to believe. – Ed.
Since President Obama delivered his speech in Cairo to the Islamic world, it has been sliced and diced by dozens of commentators with reviews ranging from brilliant and a mark of a new beginning to a hypocritical, condescending apologia for America’s sins, imagined or real. There have been a number of polls on Arab reaction to President Obama’s speech, but really none were needed. Arab audience reaction ranged mostly from very good to excellent. Many were exuberant and wildly excited by the appearance of Obama and the manner in which he presented the speech. As Egyptian writer Tareq Heggy put it, “The president has rock star appeal to the Arab world. It is as if he is a magician. He won their hearts and minds.”
His speech writers did a masterful job of pushing all the right buttons. As the Iraqi sociologist Ali Al Wardi has written, Arabs love words over deeds, and the president’s use of symbology and analogies (a style used in the Qur’an) was enthusiastically received by the people in attendance. The president’s body language and use of an Arabic rhetorical style known as balagha in the speech were as much a part of the enthusiastic reaction as the words themselves. A few thought his use of Qu'ranic phrases was a bit artificial, but they liked it anyway. The reaction of the elite of the Arab world bordered on ecstatic, with a few mentioning misgivings about his apparent reaching out to fundamentalists. Some observers believe the speech was intended to go over the heads of the Middle Eastern leaders and directly address the people, appealing to the educated segment of the population. Some felt this did not go unnoticed by Egyptian President Mubarak, who was not at the gathering and had only a short, perfunctory meeting with President Obama.
However, judging the speech by how well it advanced American interests is a different matter. Because Arabs admire and like Obama does not necessarily – and probably will not – translate into any significant elevation of how Arabs view Americans. Obama, as many will tell you, excited imaginations with his middle name (which he used, in contrast to his domestic silence on it). It is a peculiar trait of Arabs and Muslims to believe that no matter where you are or how long you have lived there, if you have an Arab name then you are an Arab. In fact even his first name, Barack, is a shortened version of Baraka, meaning charismatic or the gifted one. In other words, it is highly problematic that the personal admiration for Obama the person and powerful figure will translate into any significant elevation in the way Arabs view ordinary Americans. A Zogby poll released just before the speech indicated high marks for President Obama, but a negative view of Americans hovering near 80% in a number of Arab countries.
Obama Up, America Down?
Many commentators have written that the Arabs want to see the words followed by action. This is true, but the reality is that as the facts of the Arab-Israeli impasse and the ambitions of Iran resurface in the cold light of day and little seems to be happening on the ground, the popularity of President Obama will not likely diminish. He will be seen as being undermined by the American Congress, the Zionist lobby, etc. However, American standing in the Arab “street” may sink even lower.
As I have always told my students, if the Arabs like you, you can do no wrong, and if they do not like you, you can do no right. Unfortunately they did not like President Bush so whatever he did was seen as evil. On the contrary Obama will be seen as the friend of Arabs and Muslims, being thwarted by various anti-Arab cabals.
The point here is that Arabs tend to admire leaders who capture their imagination, even if they are disasters. Nasser led Egypt to two humiliating defeats in Yemen and the 1967 war with Israel, yet he remains above reproach among most Arabs. Saddam Hussein, like Nasser, is revered among many Arabs (not the Shi'a) as being a great leader who stood up to the Persians and Americans. The fact that he killed thousands of his own people and led Iraq into disaster after disaster has no resonance. A Palestinian told me about families he knew that had cried for three days when Saddam was executed.
It is the hard reality that President Obama, however gifted he may be in communication with the Arab world, cannot change the reality on the ground. The Middle Eastern peoples are wise in the ways of the world, with a great deal of cynicism toward the machinations of the politics. Typical of this was the reaction of Mohamed Hussein Haykal to the speech. Haykal is revered among Arab nationalists throughout the Arab world as the last word on all things social and political. His close attachment to the Nasser regime has only added to his credentials among Arab intellectuals. When he talked on Al Jazeera, people listened and usually agreed with him.
Change in Nuance, Not Policy
Haykal typified the speech as a change in terminology and nuance but not policy. He said that the many “experts” Obama used to write and edit his speech (as reported by the New York Times) invalidated its use as a document for policy change. Haykal said that the use of these experts to provide input on Islamic symbology and emotional keys was proof that it was simply a public diplomacy gambit. As he told a group of assembled journalists, “…if it were a speech meant to change U.S. policy the only input would be that of the president with others only supplying the necessary words.”
In this, despite his many years at the side of the world’s leading political figures in the heyday of the non-aligned movement, Haykal illustrates the profound ignorance of the American political system that is endemic in the Arab world, especially among Arab intellectuals. Looking at the U.S. political system, Arab political leaders see it through the lens of their own authoritarian view of government and how it operates.
Haykal also demonstrates the underlying embedded pathologies that always inhibit Western dealings with the Arab world. First and foremost is the Palestinian issue and, as a byproduct, the Holocaust. Haykal emphatically makes the point that Obama mentioned the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust, comparing this unfavorably to the speech of Pope Benedict during his recent visit to Israel, in which the Pope refused to give numbers “despite Israeli pressures...” The obsession to diminish the tragic scale of the Holocaust or to equate it to the exodus of Palestinians from Palestine in 1948 and 1967 inhibits every attempt to come to terms with the existence of an Israeli state.
This pathology is found also in the television talk of the very popular Sheikh Al-Qaradhawi, who found Obama’s speech linking the Torah to the Qur’an as unacceptable. Somehow, according to Al-Qaradhawi, the “annihilation” of the American Indians and the aborigines of Australia is a result of the biblical injunctions in the Torah calling for annihilation of the Jews’ enemies. This would be laughable were it not for the fact that he and many like him are the shapers of attitudes in the Arab world.
In his critique of the speech Haykal exhibits the Arab trait that will continue to bedevil any “coming together.” It is the attitude of the Arabs as the victims, the West as the victimizers, and that Arabs need only wait – inert and passive – for peace on their terms to be delivered to them. At the present time Arab initiative or innovation in pursuit of peace is non-existent. As a peace initiative was the proximate cause of the assassination of Anwar Sadat, Arab leaders are reluctant to get out front.
A Reasoned Arab Viewpoint
One of the more prescient analyses of the Obama speech from a more reasoned Arab viewpoint was written by Azmi Bishara in the recent edition of the Al Ahram Weekly. As he writes, “…the U.S. president did not have to mount a public relations campaign. Others were already doing that for him.” He goes on to write that “It stirred a tendency toward hyperbole and a willingness to believe that everything Obama said was new.”
Writing of the meeting between King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and President Obama, Azmi posits that it:
…betrays the hypocrisy of American “progressive” [author’s quotation marks] liberalism when its most senior representative, the President, sings the praises of a king with whom he has nothing in common. Such has been the fate of this liberal Harvard graduate who, after coming to power on the crest of a youthful wave of change, finds himself following a conventional conservative line and espousing common interests as the foremost criterion of foreign policy. Of course interests are elegantly wrapped up in noble-sounding allusions to a “meeting” and dialogue of “civilizations,” a “respect” for other cultures and “the other” instead of a “clash of civilizations.” [Quotation marks those of the author.]
Near the end of his article Azmi (an Israeli Arab and fervent Palestinian nationalist) resurrects the speech that Napoleon gave to the Egyptians – comparing it to the speech of Obama – wherein Napoleon not only claimed he and his army were Muslims but that he had defeated the armies of Christendom in their efforts to fight Muslims. Azmi does not mention the fate of French army stragglers at the hands of a non-convinced Egyptian population.
Finally Azmi makes the point that is most cogent yet seemingly lost somewhere midst all the speech hype:
The problem is not whether or not the US has changed, something which in any event will not be manifest in a lecture or visit. The problem is a lack of agreed Arab interests and the lack of a strategy for attaining them. Without these things, the Arabs have little hope of reaping the benefits of changes in the US, apart from some relief in the change in tone and atmosphere.
New Policy on Palestine?
As the days have passed the truth of Azmi’s analysis has become glaringly obvious. Much of the expectations preceding the speech were based on a “new” policy toward the Palestinian issue. Much was made of the call for freezing settlements on the West Bank (one that has been made by previous American presidents). This was amplified by the subsequent speech by Bibi Netanyahu in which he called for a two-state solution, including conditions that, as one Egyptian remarked, allow the nation of Palestine a flag and a national anthem. This has been done before by a number of Israeli prime ministers. Reuters News Service greeted this with the headline, “Netanyahu Bows to Obama,” a misleading suggestion at best. Netanyahu simply followed the strategy that has always worked for the Israelis – make a proposal with the full knowledge that the Palestinians would accommodate him by saying no, as they have been for 60 years.
The Palestinians, who never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, were true to form. Actually, the Palestinians are as fragmented as ever, recalling the era of the Nahashibi-Husseini clan conflict which worked to the benefit of the Zionists. The all-or-nothing mantra of Hamas works in Israel’s favor.
Despite the fact that ordinary Palestinians want an end to the interminable cycles of violence, the stark reality is that the Palestinian leadership and Arab rulers do not want peace. It would destroy the whole concept of muqawama, the concept that Palestinian and Arab identity is based on resistance to Israel and Western imperialism. On the other side many Israelis see the Obama peace plan as bringing the peace of the dead and want no part of it either. So it will become a repeat of an old scenario, proposal and counter-proposal, tough talk, more mediators, and dashed expectations. There will be more commentary on whether or not a house built in a West Bank Jewish settlement next to a father’s house is “natural growth” or new construction. The Israelis know that as time passes and far more important issues such as North Korea, Iran, and a sagging national economy erode the “Obama effect,” time is on their side. The “historic” Obama speech will be another interesting footnote alongside Napoleon’s speech of some 211 years ago.