Egypt Prepares For Obama’s Visit
|Thursday, June 4,2009 05:33|
|By Khaled Wassef|
Preparations for President Barack Obama"s visit to Egypt have been in high gear in Cairo. Residents of areas neighboring the Cairo University campus and the Pyramids road have been amazed by the complete transformation of the area.
Landscaping and new gardens have been planted in front of the university’s dome; workers in their hundreds applied fresh paint on the University Bridge and all lampposts around the area; new asphalt has been laid on all roads the Mr. Obama"s procession is expected to use; and new Egyptian and U.S. flags are now fluttering all over the city.
The local press said refurbishments of the university alone cost over $2.4 million.
Security has been beefed up for the visit. In addition to the thousands of Egyptian soldiers mobilized for the occasion, hundreds of FBI and CIA agents have flocked to the city in preparation for the president"s eight-hour visit, according to news reports. Some said 1,000 U.S. officers and tons of equipment arrived at Cairo airport last week, and it’s been reported that U.S. security officers met with their Egyptian counterparts to discuss the security plan for the visit, which excludes any involvement from the Egyptian side.
The Egyptian government hasn’t declared Thursday a day off, but some government officials who have been interviewed by the media advised Egyptians “to stay home” on Thursday. A limited number of companies and government organizations were given the day off, and many small shops, especially around the university area were ordered to shut down on the day of the visit. Underground stations in downtown Cairo and near Cairo University will be closed. Several universities, including Cairo, Ain Shams and Helwan universities, as well as some private colleges, decided to reschedule exams planned for Thursday.
Mr. Obama’s visit has received a great deal of attention from the local media, and made headlines in most newspapers. Al-Ahram, the biggest Egyptian daily led its front page with the headline, “Obama’s Speech Launches a New Dialogue Between The West and the Muslim World To Remove The Misunderstanding.” Another newspaper, al-Jumhuriya, led with, “All Eyes Set on Cairo University Ahead of Obama’s Historic Speech Tomorrow.”
“Cairo Today,” the leading primetime Egyptian talk show, devoted virtually the entire three-hour program yesterday to Mr. Obama’s visit. Host Amr Adeeb interviewed Mr. Obama’s Advisor for Islamic Affairs, Dalia Mujahid, who said that Mr. Obama’s speech would focus on three main points: The mutual respect that should be maintained and promoted between the U.S. and the Islamic world; mutual cooperation and interests; and America’s foreign policies towards the Muslim world.
An article published in al-Masry al-Youm (Independent Daily) today said that President Hosni Mubarak won’t be attending Mr. Obama’s speech at Cairo University, but would send his eldest son Jamal instead. Mubarak is thought by many local observers to be grooming Jamal to succeed him.
Worth noting that this will be the first public appearance for Mubarak since the sudden death of his 12-year-old grandson May 19. Mubarak was known to share a very special relationship with his grandson, and in addition to not attending the boy’s funeral, he also called off a two-day visit to Washington on May 25, where he was due to hold talks with President Obama on the Middle East peace process.
According to statements made by Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abul Gheit today, talks between Mr. Obama and Mubarak are due to focus on regional issues such as the peace process, Iraq, Lebanon, and Iran. The talks are not likely to address the economic and military aid to Egypt, or the country’s poor human rights record.
Some activists voiced their opposition to Mr. Obama’s visit. Many see it as a signal from Washington that it is willing to overlook the corruption and human rights violations propagated by the Egyptian regime. One of the largest opposition movements in the country, Kefaya ("enough") has launched calls for its members to gather at Cairo’s Tahrir Square tonight to protest against Mr. Obama’s visit, under the slogan “No to Tricky Obama.”
Egyptian Copts looked at the visit as an opportunity to draw the president’s attention to their situation as a religious minority in Egypt. Najib Jebrael, legal advisor to Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria and St. Mark Diocese, addressed a letter to both presidents urging them to discuss the issue of religious freedoms in Egypt, and in particular the situation of Coptic Egyptians.
Unexpectedly, Egypt’s Islamic groups welcomed Mr. Obama’s visit. On its Web site, the Jamaa Islamiyah published a statement entitled “Welcome Obama.” The group reminded President Obama that America’s interests are more congruent with those of Muslim countries who possess a strategic location, have significant amounts of oil, and offer a great opportunity for interaction with other cultures and religions.
The group, however, listed a number of “just demands” which they said would be “expected from Obama by the Muslim world.” The demands included a just solution to the Palestinian problem, a fair handling of the Israeli nuclear issue, and the release of the group’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, a blind sheikh who has been jailed in the U.S. in connection with the World Trade Center bombing in 1993.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood also welcomed Mr. Obama’s visit. The group confirmed that at least 10 Muslim Brotherhood MPs will be attending the president’s speech. “The Muslim world will listen to President Obama’s speech with open hearts, and extend an olive branch to the great American people, hoping that together we can overcome our differences, face the common challenges lying ahead, and create a peaceful and better future for our children,” read a statement on the group"s Web site.
The Muslim Brotherhood called on the Mr. Obama to promote democracy, freedom, and human rights and pressure authoritarian regimes to democratize and hold transparent elections that would allow the people to freely choose their representatives.
The Muslim Brotherhood is officially banned in Egypt, but they hold over one fifth of Parliament"s seats with 88 MPs sitting as independents.
Transcript: Obama"s speech in Cairo (PDF)