Muslims and Arabs in the Middle East were all ears Thursday listening to America's President Barack Obama as he sought a “new beginning” between the U.S. and Muslims, many of whom admired his words but remained sceptical of real change.
In a speech that elicited exactly 30 instances of vigorous clapping, Obama affirmed America’s respect for Islam and called on the Muslim world to join America in a partnership of development.
"I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect," he said in a speech that included four quotations from the Quran. "America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition."
“He knows the Quran and quotes it well!” chimed Mansur Hasoona, 35, as he watched Obama’s speech from a café in Dokki. “This president is certainly different from all the others. I really hope he follows through and brings real change,” Hasoona told Al Arabiya.
“This is the first president I have heard who speaks so respectfully of Islam and can quote reasonably well from the Quran,” Cairo University student Hanan Ashrawy,22, told Al Arabiya. "But good talk with no action would be a huge let down for us all," she warned.
Egypt’s officials saw in Obama’s overtures to Islam and his usage of the Quran a sign of sincere respect and understanding of their religion while Muslim Brotherhood members said the speech highlighted values at the core of Islam’s message.
“The U.S. president delivered a sensitive and wise address that spoke of a good future for Muslim American relations,” Tantawi told local press.
Esaam al-Eryaan, Muslim Brotherhood spokesman, welcomed Obama’s “new beginning,” and hoped to see it flourish into assertive action in the region.
“Obama’s address hit the core values of Islam of good governance, respect for human rights and freedom of religions,” al-Eryaan told Al Arabiya. “We hope to see the president put these values into action as he engages more with the Middle East.”
But Khalil al-Anani, from al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said the responsibility of turning a new page in U.S. and Arab Muslim relations rests as much on Arab Muslims as the U.S.
“One thing the Obama address has done is highlight Muslim responsibilities in this partnership and engagement,” al-Anani told Al Arabiya. “The ball is in the Arab Muslim court now.”
Dalia Ziyadah, head of American Islamic Congress MENA branch in Cairo, applauded Obama’s ability to bring together Egypt’s entire political, religious and vocational spectrum into one hall to find common ground.
“Obama succeeded in uniting Egypt’s civil society, various opposition groups and government on a common goal and that is change and development,” Ziyadah told Al Arabiya.
Mohammed Habash, a Syrian Parliamentarian, cautioned Muslims from getting swept away by Obama’s rhetoric. "We should not become over excited. We could, however, discover a way to find common ground and take advantage of his speech," Habash was quoted by Reuters.
“A mountain to climb”
But many viewers also felt the speech was short on specifics and were dubious about its long term impact and what changes on the ground it can yield.
Gamal Eid, head of the Arabic Network for Human Rights, said that while the U.S. president’s address was generally comprehensive, it was short on substance.
"Obama did not specifically talk about democracy in the Muslim world or touch upon problems like imprisoning opposition and emergency law,” Eid told Al Arabiya.
Hezbollah's lawmaker Hassan Fadlallah rejected Obama's speech and said that the "Islamic world does not need moral or political sermons," but a "fundamental change in American policy," he told Reuters.
Activist and blogger Husam al Hamalawy criticized Obama’s speech, saying it did not come close to addressing the demands of Arabs and Muslims and that it re-enforced an all too familiar American policy in the region.
“I was not disappointed by Obama’s speech because I did not expect it to break new ground in a substantial way regarding key issues such as halting support for Israeli aggression, and putting a stop to funding dictatorships in the Middle east,” Hamalawy told Al Arabiya. “Obama certainly still has a mountain to climb.”
Crux of the problem: Israel-Arab conflict
To many viewers, Obama's address failed to offer anything new on the Israeli Arab conflict. AbdulRahman Mansur, a political activist and blogger called Obama’s speech “mere rhetoric,” devoid of any fundamental shifts in policy, especially on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Obama talks about peaceful coexistence and yet upholds status quo policies on Hamas,” Mansur told Al Arabiya, adding that Obama’s call to Palestinians to adopt non-violent resistance is “absurd” because “Israel’s continual massacring of Palestinians makes resistance inevitable,” he explained.
A survey of 600 Egyptians released by WorldPublicOpinion.org Wednesday showed 67 percent of Egyptians continue to view U.S. foreign policy negatively and see Obama as closely aligned with it despite giving him much better ratings than Bush.
Israel also witnessed mixed reactions to its ally’s “new beginning,” with some hailing Obama’s affirmation of America’s “unshakable” tie to Israel, while others feared the change in tone.
Yossi Shain, head of the Hartog School of Government in Tel Aviv said it was "essential for Arabs to understand" America's "unbreakable" bond with Israel.
But Obama’s assertion that Jerusalem was the city open to all Jews, Christians and Muslims caused a stir amongst Israeli analysts who worried Obama may be on to a new policy towards Israel.
"One will have to see whether there was a political intention with regards to his reference to the three faiths in Jerusalem," Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. told The Media Line, adding that it was not acceptable for Obama to call for "Jerusalem's internationalization."