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Optimism in Egypt Over President Obama's June Visit


U.S. President Barack Obama's announced visit to Egypt in June, to address the Arab and Muslim world, has many Arabs and Egyptians enthusiastic, despite a recent history of ill-feelings towards the United States during the Bush years.

Top Arab broadcasters Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera TV highlighted the news that President Obama is planning a visit to Cairo on June 4, noting that relations between the Arab world and the United States have improved significantly since the end of the Bush Administration.

Mr. Obama's June 4 speech in the Egyptian capital will take place as part of a trip that will include visits to Germany and France to commemorate the 65th anniversary of D-Day, when Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy during World War Two.

Egypt, with 83 million people, is the most populous Arab nation, and has long been the intellectual and cultural capital of the Arab world. It was the first Arab state to make peace with Israel, and is also the seat of the Arab League.

Egypt's official news agency, MENA, reported Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said Mr. Obama has inspred a "new spirit" and officials in Egypt also welcomed the June visit.

Egypt also has a powerful conservative Islamic movement led by the nominally banned Muslim Brotherhood. The group carries significant weight, both inside and outside Egypt.

Long-time former Egyptian Foreign Minister Esmat Abdel Meguid praised Mr. Obama for coming to Egypt and for trying to develop stronger ties with the Arab world:

"I very much welcome this visit and consider that it's a very important move by Mr. Obama, and that in coming and visiting, to know more about our area and about Egypt, is something very, very successful. Mr. Obama, by doing it, is really giving a push to know more about our area and being helpful assisting people," he said.

A Saudi man, Marzouk al Anazy, however, commented on Al Arabiya TV's website that Mr. Obama "should visit Islam's holy places (in Saudi Arabia), instead, if he wants to talk to Muslims."

Another man, named Azraqy questioned President Obama's motives for the trip: "What will [he] say, what will [he] do? We all saw what Bush [former U.S. President George W. Bush] said, and what he did."

Abu Karim, from Egypt, congratulated Mr. Obama: "Well done, Mr. President," he said, "It's a long awaited step."

Paul Salem, who heads the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center, thinks that President Obama's trip to Cairo is likely to have positive reverberations across the Arab world.

"I think it's a very significant move in the Arab world. It comes after some other moves, of course: his visit to Turkey, his message to Iran, the Nowrouz message. It also comes in the wake of the Pope's visit, which I think is also setting the groundwork for sort of a cultural dialogue, an attempt to have a new start at the level of symbols and culture and try and erase some of the hostility of the last 8 or 9 years," he said.

Salem continues, "Egypt is a very Islamic state, with a very strong Muslim brotherhood. I think the way that they might react to his presence-we'll see how that is-probably a positive reaction, should resonate in the Arab media, and that should be positive," said Salem. "Now, the degree which [it] will have on the peace process and other things which are sort of the hard facts of the Middle East, is something else, altogether, as obviously there is a very serious problem with the Israeli government and so on. But, I think in general it will be very, very well received," he added.

The U.S. is placing great importance on improving relations with Egypt and with veteran Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, after tensions during the Bush Administration. Mr. Mubarak is due to visit the White House, later this month, and U.S. aid to Egypt is set to increase by around 25 percent, this year.
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