Don’t lecture us: Arabs tell Obama

by Jailan Zayan Jailan Zayan

CAIRO (AFP) – “Obama is just a prettier face. I’m sure his intentions are in the right place but I don’t expect much from the man,” a Cairo electrician said on Wednesday as US President Barack Obama began his much-anticipated Middle East trip.

Newspapers, analysts and ordinary Arabs warned Obama — whose election was hailed across the region — against emulating the policies of Bush by lecturing Muslims on democracy, and also urged him to be tough with Israel.

Obama began his tour in Saudi Arabia and will deliver a speech in Cairo on Thursday to the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims, after eight years of fraught ties under his predecessor George W. Bush.

“Don’t be biased towards Israel, don’t interfere in countries’ internal affairs and don’t give lessons in democracy,” said an editorial in Egypt‘s state-owned Rose El-Youssef newspaper.

The chief editor of Egypt’s state-owned Al-Ahram, Ossama Saraya, said Obama faced demands from his team to “put pressure on the Muslim world under the pretext of democratisation and respect for human rights.

“There’s nothing more absurd than putting more pressure on the Arab-Muslim world,” Saraya said.

Washington’s key Arab allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia have repeatedly come under criticism from international rights organisations for their poor human rights records.

“He can’t help the Palestinians because of the closeness of ties between Israel and America. He can’t improve the situation here (Egypt) because he’ll never convince the regime to change,” said taxi drive Mohammed Abdullah.”

Hamas, the Islamist rulers of the Gaza Strip boycotted by the West as a terrorist group, urged Obama to put “real pressure” on Israel.

“We will judge this visit on the basis of what he will say and concrete measures that he will take,” spokesman Fawzi Barhum said.

In Amman, the Jordan Times hoped that Obama — whose electoral promise of change has grabbed hearts in the troubled Middle East — should deliver on his pledge.

“If Obama fails in his mission of peace, the parties, and the world, might just as well prepare for more suffering and turmoil.”

In Lebanon, where Sunday’s parliamentary election will be monitored closely by Washington as it pits a Western-backed majority against a Hezbollah-led alliance backed by Syria and Iran, reactions were divided.

The Americans are testing the waters,” said travel agent Moufeed Shbeir. “Obama is trying to take a different route than Bush, but we’ll have to wait and see the results: are they going to bomb Iran?”

In non-Arab Iran, the head of North American Studies at Tehran University said Obama should have gone to the largest Muslim nation in the world — Indonesia — to address Muslims.

“I personally think Obama has made a mistake by choosing Saudi Arabia and Egypt. I don’t think this is going to go down well in the Muslim and Arab world,” Sayed Mohammad Marandi told AFP.

“Symbolically speaking, he could have gone somewhere like Indonesia,” he said.

Saudi Arabia’s Al-Riyadh newspaper warned Muslims against having high expectations. “The Islamic world should not think that Obama is coming to be an ally or a supporter,” an editorial said.

United Arab Emirates Vice President Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum warned Obama that the worsening economic situation would strengthen extremism in the Islamic world.

“Those young men, who are increasingly bored (due to growing unemployment), will be easy prey for those promoting extremism and hostility, mainly against the United States,” he wrote in Al-Khaleej.

Beirut-based analyst Paul Salem, who heads the Carnegie Middle East Centre, said he expected Arabs to be disappointed by Obama’s speech.

“What they want him to say is more than what he’s going to say,” he said.

“They want him to say that he’s going to come down hard on the Israelis, that he’s going to confront the settlement policy and that he’s going to push the Israelis to withdraw from the West Bank.

“Of course that is what every Arab would like to hear.”

On the streets of Cairo, which were getting a facelift ahead of Obama’s speech, citizens were more concerned about traffic jams than regional diplomacy on Wednesday.

“What’s he going to do for us? Lower the price of bread? If he does, then he’s welcome here,” said 38-year-old cafe worker Ahmed Abdel Salam.

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