Egyptians' Excitement for Obama's Speech Conceals Mistrust

"You know Barack Obama is coming to Cairo, right?" I ask in Arabic.

"You mean Barack Hussein Obama?" the man replies in English, turning fully around in his seat and grinning hugely.

So goes a typical exchange between an American (me) and a taxi driver in Cairo in early June. Obama's selection of Cairo for the location of his June 4th speech to address the Muslim world elicits excitement from the average Egyptian. Yet if pressed, Cairenes' admiration for the American president often transforms to cynicism and sometimes open hostility.

"Obama is a speaker, a great speaker. But is he a doer?" a street seller of licorice juice asks after learning my nationality.

Egyptians have little reason to buy into the Obamamania that has swept much of the United States. Jaded by 28 years of President Hosni Mubarak, countless broken promises of government-sponsored housing, healthcare and education as well as complete repression of political opposition, the best people can hope for is minimal government interference in their lives. The popularity of the rock star president has bemused Egyptians who had watched in horror as the American people elected and re-elected George W. Bush. The sudden shift in leadership -- and potentially foreign policy -- has at times been the butt of Cairenes' famed sense of humor: "Obama is a PR campaign cooked up by the CIA."

Obama's June 4th speech therefore, will need to address key points of Egyptians' and Arabs' concerns about US policy actions in the Middle East. While some American pundits anticipate this address to the Muslim world as the symbolic 'book-end' to Bush's 2002 'Axis of Evil' speech, closing a tumultuous chapter of American policy in the region, Egyptians remain skeptical, waiting to find out not only what he will say, but which actions he takes in the future.

An Egyptian journalist explained, "Americans seem to think that by electing Obama, they have wiped the slate clean. 'We can go back to being the good guys!' His administration needs to understand that Egyptians at least are ready to give him a chance, but he had better make the most of it."

For many Egyptians, this means addressing the issue of Palestine. On January 20th 2009, the day of Obama's inauguration, several Americans in Cairo threw parties to watch the ceremony and wore Obama paraphernalia in the streets. While their t-shirts drew honks and chants of "Obama! Obama!" from passing cars, the Cairenes' superficial support concealed deep cynicism. One group of Americans, exhilarated with the applause for their president, stepped into a local shop for inaugural snacks and asked the shopkeeper if he planned to watch the ceremony. "No," he said, "I will watch the news to learn how many children died today in Palestine." The Americans left, their high spirits thoroughly dampened. Obama's silence during Israel's three week military campaign against Gaza in January drew criticism from many Egyptians, who saw this as the first indicator that Obama did not represent 'change they could believe in.'

Unfortunately, Thursday's speech may leave them disappointed. Jon Alterman, the director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies commented that "It would make no sense to lay out a [detailed program] in Cairo. If you have a dispute between several parties, you go to a more neutral place to begin to address that dispute."

Although Cairenes may not yet have found reason to trust Obama, and may yet remain unsatisfied with his address on June 4th, most are nevertheless thrilled he is coming to Cairo. An Egyptian colleague summed it up: "Cairo is still the center of the Arab world. Any statement he wants to make to Muslims as a whole needs to come from Cairo."

Recent years have seen Cairo take second place to its glamorous neighbors in the Gulf: cities like Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha have tried to nudge Cairo out of its historic role as the epicenter of Muslim thought. The oil wealth of the Gulf pays many Egyptian salaries, remittances that are often taken begrudgingly from Arab neighbors once considered backward.

Yet fierce pride in Cairo's primacy has been tempered by concerns from activists who see Obama's choice of Cairo as unnecessarily bolstering Egypt's oppressive regime, an issue that Secretary of State Clinton seemed to try and smooth over by calling on Egypt to support human rights while meeting with pro-democracy delegations from Egypt last week.

Ultimately, despite cynicism, security concerns, disappointment and the traffic snarls that Obama's visit is sure to create, Cairo is gratified to receive Barack Hussein Obama and true to Egyptian hospitality, will wait to pass further judgment until after the conclusion of his eight hour visit.