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Obama Faces Almost Impossible Task: How to Please Everyone, All the Time

I can't help feeling sorry for Barack Obama. It must awful, being the Boy Wonder.

Everyone wants something and human nature being what it is, it's likely that people will want different things. It's a recipe for sure disappointment.

Take his upcoming speech in Cairo, Egypt. This is being billed as the summer's big attraction -- Obama addressing the Arab and Muslim world. His opportunity to roll back, with one clever, rousing speech, all the damage that had been laid down with such care and dedication by the Bush Administration over the past eight years.

The problem is, it's an almost impossible task. When he takes the podium at Cairo University, there are going to be so many elephants in the room he might have difficulty getting to the mike.

For a start, not all Muslims are happy to be addressed from Egypt -- too many people feel that the words "Arab" and "Muslim" are synonymous. As a matter of fact, Arabs represent only about 300 million of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims. That said, Egypt represents the seat of (overwhelmingly) Muslim-majority Sunni Islam and despite several bumps along the road, is still the cultural and political leader of the Arab world.

And of course, despite that fact that Muslims are spread across every part of the globe except for the poles, there are some major concerns in common.

The issue of Palestine has been a traditional common unifier. Regardless of how a Muslim-majority country feels about Israel -- certainly not all of them are antagonistic towards the state -- there is agreement on the fact that the suffering of the Palestinians must come to an end. There has always been a suspicion that the U.S was more prone to take Israel's side in the discussion, but the previous administration couldn't have hammered the point home more if they'd used a pneumatic drill. The term "honest broker" is an open joke in the Arab world. Obama is going to have to try and convince his listeners that the U.S. truly is interested in the "fair and just peace" that is being bandied about in speeches.

He will be addressing an audience that is suffering from economic hardship, unemployment, and a bone-weary conviction that much of the world -- and the U.S. in particular -- has it in for them because of the religion they adhere to.

He's also going to have to convince some of his listeners that the U.S. is not oblivious to their need for democratic and political reform and demands for basic human rights. In fact, he's going to have to go one further and not only indicate that the U.S. will support those demands, he'll also have to mention how it intends to do it.

The largest problem for Obama is that he will be addressing two distinct audiences, whose needs are sometimes mutually exclusive; the people of the region and the governments of the region. The people feel strongly that America has propped up undemocratic regimes in the region for its own ends and there is widespread concern that previous demands for regional regimes to institute democratic reform will dropped. I can't speak for the governments, but one can only assume that after generations of having fulfilled their end of the propping-up bargain, suddenly being asked to step aside for a democratic process seems, at best, rather rude.

There is one thing that both governments and people have in common, however, and particularly in Egypt. Neither of them likes being told what to do by a foreigner, so the former administration's ham-fisted version of all-stick, no-carrot foreign diplomacy isn't going to work.

It will be difficult for Obama to give a speech in Cairo mentioning the imperative need for human rights and democratic reform without appearing to insult the host government. He simply will not be able to without recalling his less-than-diplomatic (and less-than-successful) predecessor. However, his not doing so will strip him of credibility with the people.

It's a minefield he will have to pick his way through very, very carefully. Perhaps the best thing, the smartest thing, to do is say a few things.

The first would be to reassure his listeners that the U.S. is well aware of how difficult it has become to be an Arab or a Muslim in today's political arena. The second would be that America is finally through with merely paying lip-service to the idea that a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse is in everyone's interests and that it will strive to help attain this resolution. Regardless of how unpopular this will make it with the Israel lobby back home.

Thirdly, he needs to say that he is well aware of regional needs for democratic reform and human rights and the U.S. stands ready and willing to help develop them, as its people see fit. Whether such help is in form of financial aid or technical aid is open to discussion -- with the region's people.

And finally, he's going to have to convince his listeners that America is not merely the biggest bully in the school yard. It's important that he does, because ultimately, it's very much in the American's interests. The world has become too small a place for such a thing as regional disagreements. The smallest ripple will be felt halfway across the world in the time that it takes to spread discontent and a feeling of injustice. It does the U.S. no good to have the world's Muslim-majority countries mired in economic, political and democratic quagmires and be able -- however irrationally -- to point a finger at the U.S. as a reason for it.

Obama has much going for him -- in a recent poll in six Arab countries, 73 percent felt positive or neutral towards him. People want to him to do well. He shouldn't waste the opportunity. When he takes the podium at Cairo University, he's going to need to convince his listeners that he knows what they want -- they just need to give him a little time to deliver.

Mirette F. Mabrouk is a Visiting Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

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