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Shirin Sadeghi

Shirin Sadeghi

Posted: June 4, 2009 10:33 AM

View From Cairo: What About the People, Obama?


The air in Cairo is noticeably cleaner than usual and the stifling traffic has been veered from its heart this week. Shops have been closed, streets have been blockaded, and the Egyptian police state has outdone even itself with the massive security presence throughout the city. Obama is in town and the Cairenes must suffer the consequences.

Perhaps this paradox, more than his speech, has been Obama's inevitable message to the Muslim world: that the United States will look the other way at your governments' repressive policies because a working relationship with them is more important than a consideration of the peoples' rights.

Politics at its best - but where does that leave the people?

"He's here only eight hours, and yet my building has been taken over by security guards and I must show an ID just to go home to my family," a downtown cabbie who lives near Cairo University in Giza told me. "Is this democracy?"

Obama's speech was a carefully constructed, second speech to the Muslim world - do not forget his speech in Turkey in April. Today in Cairo he touched on a great deal of the issues that Western observers think Muslim people care deeply about.

On many fronts, Obama was right.

Merely speaking words like "the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable" or "civilization's debt to Islam" is important and necessary and Obama deserves praise for providing these nuggets of appreciation and historical perspective.

But his words today were more useful to the governments with whom the United States must engage during his administration - governments like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, The Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran, all of whom have a severely problematic regard for the rights of their people - than for the Muslim people whose living reality is too often stained by insufficient power to improve their lives.

The White House promoted this speech as a discussion with the Muslim world, but most of what Obama said seemed geared either to the governments of the Muslim world or the Muslims who live in the West.

Even when he touched on women's rights, Obama framed it in a Western perspective: he disagrees with Western nations - perhaps an allusion to Germany and France's recent problems - who struggle with Muslim women wearing hejab.

But he didn't come at the issue from the perspective that was promised -- by addressing Muslims in Muslim countries. If that were indeed the case, we should have heard his analysis of women who are compelled or forced to wear hejab in these countries and women whose lives and livelihoods are severely impaired by the segregation of sexes that pervades much of the Muslim world.

He commendably touched on the need for girls and women's education in Muslim countries - but ignored the fact that in the Muslim countries where women have least access to education, Islamic fundamentalism is often strongest.

At times in his speech, it was almost as if Obama in his elegant oration was pandering to the fundamentalists and the oppressive governments who have defined the Islamic dialogue for decades. He said that he does not want to be a prisoner of the past, but his speech was littered with history which, while accurate, is old news when it stands alone without direction or context.

If for Obama the Muslim world refers to the Muslim people, then their lives now and their future are more important to them - regardless of their religious values - than a detailed analysis of where their religious and political leaders have been.

"I don't know who Obama is yet," the cabbie told me, "but I wonder what he wants of our people."