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Obama’s Choice Shows Egypt’s Role
Obama’s Choice Shows Egypt’s Role
When the White House had to decide in recent days where President Barack Obama would deliver a high-profile speech directed at the Muslim world, a debate broke out among his advisers.
Wednesday, May 13,2009 05:24
by Gerald F. Seib The Wall Street Journal

When the White House had to decide in recent days where President Barack Obama would deliver a high-profile speech directed at the Muslim world, a debate broke out among his advisers.

Some pushed for the speech to be made in Indonesia, which would make some sense. Indonesia is, after all, home to the world’s largest Muslim population. It has coped with Islamic extremism, but as a practicing democracy, it’s also a nation the U.S. could point to as a kind of model.

But ultimately, the administration decided the June 4 speech, aimed at the fifth of the world’s population that is Muslim, would be given in Egypt. That decision speaks loudly about the real challenge Mr. Obama faces. He won’t simply be talking to Muslims about religion and culture. Inevitably, he will be speaking to the fundamental political divide in the Islamic world today, which starts in the Middle East, and in which Egypt is a crucial player.

Possible Implications of Obama’s Speech to Muslim World


President Obama’s decision to give a speech directed to the Muslim world from Egypt says much about the split between moderate and radical Islam, and Egypt’s central role in that debate. Capital Journal Columnist Jerry Seib explains.

It’s increasingly clear the real divide is between relatively moderate Islamic governments willing to be aligned with the U.S. -- Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and the Palestinian Authority -- and a radical axis led by Iran that includes Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, the various splinters of al Qaeda and, increasingly, nations such as Qatar. Up in the air are nations such as Lebanon, which has a crucial election next month that will help determine its path.

The goal of any speech to the Islamic world can’t be simply to make Muslims feel better about America, but to convince Islamic leaders and people alike that there’s nothing incompatible about being Muslim and being aligned with the U.S. More bluntly, the goal is to convince the Muslim audience that Iran doesn’t represent the future.

And Egypt is -- or at least should be -- central to that effort.

Egypt sits at the center of three large and politically important concentric circles: the Arab world, the African world and the Islamic world. That’s a crucial position to occupy in the historic struggle now under way between moderate and radical Islam.

Egypt knows both sides of that struggle. It is the birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that is the wellspring of many of today’s radical Islamic movements. Cairo was the site of what remains one of the most shocking attacks ever launched by Islamic extremists, the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat by radicals who had infiltrated his own military.

On the other hand, Egypt is home to one of the most celebrated, and moderating, influences in the Islamic world, the historic Al-Azhar University. Its scholars have been ruling on religious and legal matters for Sunni Muslims for more than a thousand years. By and large, Al-Azhar has been a source of reason, even though its critics try to discredit it by charging that it operates under the government’s thumb.

The point is that Egypt -- the largest Arab nation, Sunni, moderate and fairly pro-Western in its outlook -- ought to be a powerful and democratic counterweight to large, Shiite and more radical Iran. In reality, sometimes it fills that role effectively and sometimes it doesn’t, which has long been a source of frustration to American policy makers.

Much of this ambiguous situation is personified by Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak. Mr. Mubarak, who just turned 81 years old, has been Egypt’s leader since the Sadat assassination. Throughout, he has been a friend of the U.S., a voice for political and religious moderation, a defender of Egypt’s historic peace agreement with Israel, and the catalyst for economic liberalization.

He also has confounded those who thought he would demonstrate that there could be an orderly democratic transfer of power in the Arab world’s largest nation. Instead, he was re-elected without opposition four times, and a fifth time in a contested election marred by the jailing of his chief opponent. Many Egyptians think he is grooming his son to take his place. Egypt’s human-rights record is spotty, and dissidents often are taken out of circulation.

Much of the political repression in Egypt is carried out in the name of keeping Islamic extremists under control, which raises the classic question of whether that strategy is successful or simply breeding more anger beneath the surface. Egyptians think the 27-year rule of Mr. Mubarak shows that their approach works.

In any case, Egypt’s political, economic and human-rights records, however blemished, shine when compared to the systems advanced by radical Islamists. More to the point for Mr. Obama’s effort next month, Egypt has a government and a people that have a long history of wanting friendship with the U.S.

The war in Iraq has strained those feelings; in an exhaustive series of surveys it has done in the Muslim world, the Gallup polling organization found recently that a paltry 6% of Egyptians said they approved of American leadership. But Gallup also found that Egyptians said an American withdrawal from Iraq would be the single act that would most improve their view. Mr. Obama, of course, has set that withdrawal into motion.

So there is room for a significant improvement in Egyptians’ views of the U.S., as well as in Egypt’s role as a counterweight to radical Islam. One speech won’t accomplish both, of course, but it’s a good place to start

The Source

Posted in Obama , Human Rights  
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