• Obama
  • June 18, 2009
  • 8 minutes read

view: Obama’s Mid-East challenge

view: Obama’s Mid-East challenge

In a dramatic initiative, President Barack Obama has sought to reframe and shift the Middle East debate away from conflict and war to cooperation and partnership. His choice of Cairo as the location of this initiative, and his recognition of the Palestinians’ plight, have already led some within the Muslim community to sense a powerful change in the US’ attitude to Muslims. This change may even win over more mainstream Islamists and former jihadis and associates of Osama bin Laden, provided the momentum of goodwill created by the rhetoric is built upon and not allowed to fizzle out.

Obama’s speech in Cairo offered a powerful contrarian paradigm to that of bin Laden and reminded his Muslim audience that the relationship between Islam and the Christian West includes centuries of coexistence and cooperation, not just conflict and religious war.

Unlike his preaching predecessor, George W Bush, Obama fully understands that the raging battle between the US and Al Qaeda’s transnational jihadis can’t be won on the battlefield. In the eyes of the world, particularly Islam, America lost its moral compass and the world’s hearts and minds.

Al Qaeda’s war paradigm, if not its terrorist tactics, gained momentum and credibility all over Muslim lands. Opinion polls showed that large majorities of Muslims believed that the US was waging a war against their culture and religion, and that the US was trying to subjugate their people.

President Obama could not have chosen a more appropriate venue than Egypt, a pivotal country, to deliver his message to the Muslim world. From the 1956 Suez crisis, when the Eisenhower administration played a key role in forcing US allies — Britain, France, and Israel — to terminate their ill-fated invasion of Egypt to the Cold War rivalry that pitted the US against nationalist leaders like Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, US-Egyptian relations have swung from one extreme to the other.

But, as the first Arab country to end the state of war with Israel, official Egypt has been a crucial player in maintaining the pro-US regional security system. And as the Arab world’s most populous nation (approximately 80 million people) and its cultural capital, Egypt is a microcosm and driver of Arab politics.

As in other Arab countries, Egypt’s political authoritarianism is the norm, not the exception. Autocratic Arab rulers have repressed legitimate political dissent and stifled personal initiative and innovation, triggering the rise of extremism. It is no wonder, then, that religious-based opposition groups like the Muslim Brotherhood are the main beneficiaries of failing pro-Western Muslim rulers.

Like other Muslims, 78 percent of Egyptians say they have an unfavourable view of the United States, an alarming finding given that Egypt is the second largest recipient of US foreign aid ($2 billion annually) after Israel since signing the Camp David peace accords.

For all these reasons, Obama went to Cairo to address the critical challenges facing the United States in the Muslim world.

But more groundbreaking and most startling were his talking points on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Of all sitting American presidents, only Obama has spoken so explicitly and eloquently about the suffering of the Palestinian people — Muslims and Christians — in the pursuit of a homeland. He spoke movingly of their dislocation, humiliation and occupation.

Of all sitting American presidents, only Obama has linked the construction of a Palestinian state so closely to America’s strategic interests: “That is in Israel’s interest, Palestine’s interest, America’s interest, and the world’s interest. And that is why I intend to personally pursue this outcome with all the patience that the task requires.”

Obama is the only contemporary American president who used the historic term “Palestine” more than once in his speech, a bold move. He made it publicly clear that the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories. He also said that “Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s.”

The combination of speaking in Cairo and with such empathy about the plight of the Palestinians not only linked some of the most pressing issues facing the Middle East and how the world will deal with this region, but also suggested a new paradigm for US policy.

Indeed, even some of the administration’s most ardent critics in the Muslim world were not deaf to Obama’s more harmonious tone. As one Arab critic told me, “Obama was full of humanity. He spoke power with humility.” Even those Arabs who had hoped that the president would flesh out his vision and be specific said that his words carried weight and that he came across as “radically different” from other leading US politicians.

Although Hamas gently criticised Obama for not going far enough in voicing support for Palestinian nationalist aspirations, it said it could “build on” his speech and recognised his tone as different from pronouncements by previous US presidents. “There is a change between the speech of President Obama and previous speeches made by George Bush. But today’s remarks at Cairo University were based on soft diplomacy to brighten the image of the United States,” said Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza. “It had many contradictions, all the while reflecting tangible change,” he added.

The president’s speech was good, said the Muslim Brotherhood, but that only time would tell if his noble goal would be realised. The head of its Political Bureau, Essam El-Erian, a rising star, said that the speech was “a good start” and that Obama as president followed what he promised as candidate, “but we’re waiting for action on the ground”.

Some senior former jihadis (and associates of bin Laden and Zawahiri) also praised Obama’s speech. In an interview with a popular Egyptian newspaper, Almasry Alyoum, a top former jihadi, Essam Darbala, said that he and his cohorts view Obama as seeking to bring “real change” in America’s relations with the Muslim world. Darbala, leader of the largest jihadist group in the Muslim world, the Egyptian Islamic Group, which since the late 1990s has renounced the use of violence, urged bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan to make a positive gesture to Obama’s speech and suspend their attacks on Americans.

While many Arabs and Muslims are sceptical of the president’s pledge to “personally” help broker a peace settlement (they say Obama is unlikely to take concrete measures to force hard-line Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to stop the construction of new settlements), they concede there is a breath of fresh air in Washington.

The road to Palestine is long and fraught with minefields. But President Obama’s message is beginning to get traction in the Muslim world. His words have unleashed a torrent of self-reflection and soul-searching among Muslim activists and opinion makers of different ideological persuasion. He has stolen the thunder of Al Qaeda and turned the tables on the group.

The challenge facing Obama is to translate the rhetoric into policy currency. He knows well that he has to invest some of his precious and limited political capital in brokering an Arab-Israeli peace settlement and extracting American forces from Muslim lands.

Obama must deliver because he has raised expectations among Muslims of a new era of relations with America, of a breakthrough on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. Progress toward peace would create a totally new momentum in US relations in as much as broken promises could detonate Obama’s peace paradigm and revive bin Laden’s war paradigm. — YaleGlobal

Fawaz A Gerges holds the Christian A Johnson Chair in Middle Eastern Studies and International Affairs at Sarah Lawrence College. His most recent book is Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy