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Obama Egypt Speech: Venue Choice Draws Fire

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President Obama's decision to address the Muslim World in a speech on June 4th in Cairo, Egypt -- one of the most authoritarian Muslims countries in the Middle East - begs the question: is Egypt the right place to address such issues or not?

On May 8, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called Egypt "the heart of the Arab world," and the trip "an opportunity for the President to address and discuss our relationship with the Muslim world."

In March 2009, Ipsos conducted a poll of 7,000 people across Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. According to the polling outfit, Egypt has the least favorable approval rating compared to the other Arab countries in the Middle East. And President Obama received 48 percent of average favorability ratings as a whole, while Egyptians gave him a favorability rating of 35 percent.
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Egypt, however, with its authoritarian regime, notoriously poor human rights record and extremely unpopular government (characteristics of the usual U.S. ally in the Middle East) is an easily criticized choice for the president.

"The state run media has been whipping up hysteria about 'Egypt's importance' and I'm sure this has affected some people, but the majority does not think high of Obama in Egypt," said Hossam el-Hamalawy an Egyptian journalist and blogger for Arabawy.org. "And yes, this will help the ailing Mubarak to solidify his power."

The Israeli-Palestinian issue, the future of 'War On Terror' policies and the future of the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are among the issues that are expected to be addressed by the president.

"Egypt obviously puts him right in the middle of the Middle East -- so he speaks not only from the Islamic world but from the Arab world, indeed from what has traditionally been considered the most important and intellectually and culturally central Arab country," said Mark Danner, a professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley and the author of Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror.

"It is worth pointing out that Washington's relations with Mubarak declined appreciably during the Bush administration and this might help revive them," added Danner.

According to the US State Department's International Religious Freedom Report about 17 percent of 1.5 billion estimated Muslims in the World live in the Middle East, and not all of the people in the Middle Eastern countries are Muslim. Beyond the numbers and figures there are the political implications of this trip that make President Obama's address from Cairo questionable.

"Obama's visit to Egypt is an affirmation that the White House is committed to sponsoring the dictatorial Mubarak regime," says Hossam el-Hamalawy. "I don't want him to come to Egypt. I want him to sever all ties with the Mubarak's dictatorship, withdraw immediately all US troops from every single Arab and Muslim country, cut completely the aid to Israel. All things that he will never do."

"One, not much noticed, fact is that this no doubt worked into Obama's decision not to release the so-called 'torture' photographs," explained Danner, adding that, "They would have come out just before he arrived in Cairo and the images probably would have dominated the news."

"We give Cairo more than a billion dollar a year. We need Mubarak's help when it comes to our plans for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and he is going to Egypt to appease [President] Mubarak," Says Reza Aslan, scholar of religion and the author of the New York Times Bestseller, No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam and How to Win a Cosmic War.

"But I wouldn't have chosen Egypt, not at all," added Aslan. "Egypt is a despotic government. It's a dictatorship and police state. It's a government that has continued to suppress any kind of democratic force, whether is it the secular left or the Muslim Brotherhood and it has proven that it's ready for a kind of political reform that we need from our allies."

"Plus, more importantly, Egypt is not the Muslim world," explained Aslan adding that, "The Arabs are not the Muslim world. Arabs make eight percent of World's one and half billion Muslims."

President Obama's pick of Egypt has raised questions and doubts about what he aims to address; the Muslim World or the Arab countries?

"He [President Obama] should be more careful not to speak about the Muslim world as if there is "one" Muslim world; there is no 'one' Muslim world," said Olivier Roy, a research director at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the author of "Globalized Islam" and "The Failure of Political Islam."

"There is a population of Muslims with different interests, different citizenship and different views of the world," added Roy. "I think that Obama should be more open to the diversity of the Muslim world instead of testing the unity of the Muslim world. There is not a unity of the Muslim world."

"It is a mistake to speak about Islam in the framework of any given country but, to me, Cairo may be the worst choice," explains Roy. "Addressing Muslims from Cairo is supporting [President] Mubarak who has a political agenda; it means to endorse his political agenda and it means also makes the issue of Islam hostage of the Middle East crisis, which for me is a mistake. So, in this sense, Indonesia would have been better."

"I just wish he would leave us alone to face our regimes and focus on the internal problems in America and the current global financial crisis," said Hossam el-Hamalawy.

"I was greatly disappointed that he didn't go to Indonesia, which is not only the largest Muslim country in the world, but a thriving democracy and just had an amazing elections, and a country that represent the future of Islam, not Egypt," stated Aslan. "It's a country that exposes a moderate and pluralistic conception of Islam."

On Jan. 21, 2009, President Obama used a few words in his inaugural address reaching out to the Muslims around the world, emphasizing that the U.S. was seeking "a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect".

Last month in a speech in the Turkish Parliament Obama said that the United States is not at War with Islam and will never be. "The United States has been enriched by Muslim-Americans," President Obama said in the speech. "Many other Americans have Muslims in their family, or have lived in a Muslim-majority country. I know, because I am one of them."

Some believe that President Obama might ask the Egyptian government for more political freedom, release of political prisoners and open up the society to different political parties.


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