Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 11 June 2009
Issue No. 950
Special
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Abdel-Moneim Said

Messages to and from Obama

The US president's address to the Islamic world from Cairo is near unprecedented in international relations. If the effort fails the consequences will be momentous, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Messages in politics, diplomacy and even in war are not always conveyed by explicit word or letter. In fact, more often than not they are delivered by hints, gestures, signs and signals. On rare occasion they take the shape of whispers transmitted between government agencies and that only echo in the public domain decades later, that is, if they are not taken by their deliverers or recipients to the grave.

Over the past few months, there has been an unprecedented flurry of communications, meetings, visits and exchanges of all sorts and at levels between US officials and their friends and adversaries in the Middle East, from Rabat to Islamabad. There were speeches and commentaries on the changes that would be ushered in by the new administration headed by the first African American to sit in the Oval Office in the sole remaining superpower left in the world today, and on hopes for a desperately needed breath of fresh air after eight years of folly that visited upon that superpower and the rest of the world more political and strategic madness, and more economic and humanitarian crises, than they can possibly bear.

Now, after these months of assessment, conjecture and calculation we have come to the inaugural ceremony of America's foreign policy on the Middle East. Today, President Barack Obama will stand in Cairo University and deliver a message to the Islamic world. This is an unprecedented event in the history of international relations. It has generally been the custom for world leaders -- US presidents above all -- to address the world from the podium of the United Nations on the occasion of the annual commencement of the General Assembly in September. That an American president has decided to address a specific region of the world, the Islamic world, from an Arab capital, Cairo, is new in form and substance.

Perhaps the only other similar event that might help us grasp the ramifications of this occasion is president Anwar El-Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in November 1977, which brought the Arabs and the Israelis to a phase in their relations when talk of peace between them assumed, for the first time, an equal place alongside talk of war. That masterstroke in regional relations still excites powerful reactions, from approval and praise to rejection and condemnation, but no one can dispute that the Middle East after Sadat's address to the Knesset was the same as it had been before. That speech was significant in form, for the president of the most powerful Arab state had gone to the land of the enemy in the hope of turning a new page in Arab-Israeli relations, and it was significant in substance, for it explicitly laid out all the Arabs' legitimate demands that needed to be met in order for peace to be at hand. What happened afterwards is open to dispute. But no one can deny that there was a glimmer of light and that the Arabs regained a large chunk of territory that could have remained under occupation indefinitely.

Obama's speech at Cairo University will have form and substance. The form assumes shape against the backdrop of a conflict that has been raging for the past eight years, since the attacks of 11 September 2001. In this clash of civilisations, as this conflict has been called, the Islamic world, complete with its religious identity, states and political systems, and its people, found itself at the receiving end of a vicious cycle of accusation and recrimination for those appalling acts perpetrated by a group of terrorists. By coming to Egypt and delivering an address to the Islamic world from Cairo University, Obama will interrupt that relentless chain of war and confrontation that has had its fiercest manifestations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but which nevertheless left no Islamic country unscathed.

But it will take more than such symbolism to turn a new leaf in Western-Islamic relations. After all, in international relations, when all the signals and gestures are said and done, things have to happen on the ground, not in the ethereal world of dreams and wishful thinking. So, in terms of substance, Obama's speech will most likely lay out a set of principles and ideals for dispelling all the clouds of antagonism that terrorists and neoconservatives had sewn between the Islamic world and the West and for restoring their mutual relations to their proper footing on the basis of the principles of a shared interest in the common fate of humanity and in respect for all civilisations that have interacted and contributed their legacies to produce the civilisation of the world today. In such a vision, there are not two worlds or spheres, one bad and the other good, but one world inhabited by a single human species that shares a common interest in defeating a single foe: forces that are set upon turning our world into a theatre of perpetual religious, cultural and ethnic conflagrations.

But it takes more than principles to sway people's minds. In every culture you will find quite a few that think that talk of principles is a kind of soothing narcotic the effects of which wear thin by the morning. Therefore, I predict that Obama's speech will have a more practical side, and I imagine that he will go straight to the explosive issues that have grown more complex and intractable over the years, and, indeed, decades. Prime among these will be the Arab- Israeli conflict, the occupation of Iraq, and the current situations in Pakistan and Indonesia. Without delving into detail and to avoid pre-empting Obama, I will simply say that all the talks, statements and exchanges, from the Jordanian king's visit to Washington to Obama's visit to Riyadh on the way here, all point in the same direction: the desire to turn a new leaf in Western-Islamic relations and an agenda for remedying current problems.

But while it seems possible to foresee what will come from Washington, it is not very clear yet what message the Islamic world will send to the US and to the rest of the world in turn. Apart from the desire for a just solution to the Palestinian cause, which is shared by all Muslims in the world, the signs and hints that have emerged from the Islamic world so far suggest not one message but diverse and even conflicting ones. The Muslims of India, Indonesia and Malaysia who have set their sights on catching up economically and technologically with the developed world have long since sent encouraging signals inspired by hopes for harmony between civilisations. At the other end of the spectrum, the Muslims in Tora Bora, the enclaves of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and other Islamist militants and radical fundamentalists see the Obama phenomenon as a threat to Islam and the Muslim nation. Iran has delivered its message by means of its latest Sejil 2 missile test: Iranian leaders are not really in the mood to talk right now, thank you, but they're ready to help run the world.

Yet what Obama is probably really interested in hearing is the message from the moderate Arab countries, which frequently know how to express what the US and its allies want. Foremost among these concerns are an urgent solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, a safe withdrawal from Iraq, and stability and recuperation in a region that has been exhausted by revolutions, coups, warfare and strife, and reduced failed states and others headed that way. At the same time, Obama and his companions from other countries who understand what the moderate states want, also wonder what the Arab-Islamic plan is for reconstructing this war torn region and repairing fragmented or fragmenting states. Perhaps the Arab peace initiative has already delivered the clearest message to the world from the moderate states. However, this message, formulated and sent many years ago after the Saudi-inspired initiative was adopted in the Arab summit in Beirut, still needs to be pinned down in the framework of a working plan or strategy for action. As is the case with Obama's message, the initiative needs substance commensurate with form in order to convince. As symbolically important as the principles of the Arab peace initiative are, they need to be translated into practical steps and actions.

Obama's visit to Saudi Arabia and to Egypt, and then his address to the Islamic world, may mark the real beginning of the Obama era. If his diplomacy of exchanging messages does not succeed, his hopes for a new phase of international relations and cultures based on constructive dialogue and mutual respect will vanish into thin air. At that point, we should not be surprised if the world starts tumbling downhill again and the neoconservatives return in force before the American political pendulum even had a chance to settle on the rational side.

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