Echoes from the past
Obama espoused too much continuity with past US administrations for Bassem Hassan*
Obama Day, as one of my students called last Thursday, was no ordinary day in Cairo. Almost everything was different. The city, which had just received a rushed facelift to hide anything that might disturb the visitor, seemed engulfed in a cloud of euphoria, happy to receive the commander-in-chief of an army that occupies several of its sisters with open arms. Did I say almost everything? Yes, for while Cairo might have been very different that day, the pomposity of American power was basically the same. Even the black skin of its latest representative did not manage to fully mask the supremacist tone and content of Barack Obama's much anticipated speech to the Muslim world. But he came really close, as shown by the rounds of applause he received every time he referred to the Quran, the prophet, the azan or Cordoba, from an audience that appeared convinced it had finally met its long awaited Godot.
Taking into consideration the fact that the Lebanese parliamentary elections, and the Iranian presidential elections, were only three and eight days away, respectively, one cannot but wonder whether Lebanese and Iranian voters were Obama's primary targets rather than his captive audience in Cairo University (hence, the reference to the Maronites and harsh words for those, like Ahmadinejad, who raise questions about the Holocaust). The striking resemblance between the structure and content of Obama's speech in Cairo and those of his speech two months ago in Ankara leads one to think that what was special about the former was more the timing, rather than the content or place. Even the remarks that he had prepared to flatter his audience were similar. He had referred to Turkey as a place where East and West come together, the combination of Al-Azhar and Cairo University as representing "the harmony between tradition and progress". It might not be way off the mark to suggest that in many ways Obama's administration is continuing an American tradition of intervening and trying to influence the outcome of political struggles in the region, albeit with softer means, though not necessarily less aggressively.
An analysis of the content of the speech reinforces the impression that the framework Obama laid out last week looks more like a continuation of the policies of previous American administrations, including his predecessor's, than the new beginning the 44th president of the United States would like us to believe. For starters, Obama seemed to be more interested in dictating what he felt Muslims should do and how they should define their interests than in engaging in a genuine dialogue to reach mutual understandings and to develop common interests. His list of "musts" included, but was not limited to, recognising Israel's right to exist, and abandoning armed resistance. The latter Obama described as violence which he reduced to "shoot[ing] rockets at sleeping children, or to blow[ing] up old women on a bus". In addition, he demanded, Muslims should combat violent extremism in all its forms.
In return Obama merely expressed his opposition to continuing Israeli settlement policy in the West Bank; however, he failed to elaborate any concrete steps he might take to stop it. Furthermore, he did not feel a need to clarify the kind of Jerusalem in which he would like to see Muslims, Christians and Jews coexist. Did he mean an undivided Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty, as he promised AIPAC during his campaign? Or did he have something else in mind? Of course, it did not occur to him to explain why he thinks historical Palestine has to be divided into two states rather than establishing one state in which all citizens enjoy equal rights, just as blacks and whites have the same (formal) rights in both the United States and South Africa. The only concrete promise Obama made was his pledge to fund, in the form of aid, the civil war that broke out in Pakistan as a result of implementing American dictates.
As a student of history Obama should have noticed that his speech, in particular his emphasis on progress, was reminiscent of statements made by European colonialists during the 19th century. That it raised concerns in many Muslim quarters should have come as no surprise. Unless, of course, he studied history from a Eurocentric approach, which would explain him overlooking the indigenous peoples in his narrative of American history, and reducing the dispossession of the Palestinians at the hands of the Zionists more than 60 years ago, and their struggle since to restore their rights, to a "stalemate", the crimes in Gaza to a "humanitarian crisis". As an acquaintance of the late Edward Said and of other Palestinians, Obama should know better. He probably does, which makes those who have placed great hopes on him merely due to his background feel letdown.
During his short visit to Cairo Obama showed a lot of "coolness" but he might soon find out that the majority of Muslims agree with him that "words alone cannot meet [their] needs". As for the applauding audience in Cairo University, they too might realise soon that Obama has deprived them even of the hope that comes with waiting for Godot.
* The writer is a lecturer of political science at the British University in Cairo.