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Obama Speech Puts Egypt On Center Stage


U.S. President Barack Obama travels to Egypt early June for what the White House is billing as a major address to Muslims around the world.

Cairo is the Egyptian metropolis of about 16 million people, spread along the Nile River - Egypt's lifeline throughout history.

Home to the Pharaohs and a cradle of civilization

And to this day, heart of the Arab world.

From here, in Cairo, Mr. Obama will address Muslims around the world.

Cairenes say his choice is well placed. "Anyone who comes to Egypt, we welcome them. Egypt is the mother of the whole world and we're so happy to have him," said one resident.

"Egypt is the mother of the whole Arab nation, al Azhar (Sunni Islam's center of learning and one of the oldest operating universities in the world) is in Cairo. We welcome him (Obama). He should consider this home," said another.

Egypt was an obvious choice for Mr. Obama, says political sociologist Said Sadek of the American University in Cairo, speaking of the country's recent history. "Egypt has always been a close ally of the United States, it had always adopted a moderate policy, pioneered peace with Israel, it has a very important strategic role solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in stemming Iranian hegemonic influences in the area," he said.

And, there's a strategic reason. "The real problem is with the Arabic Islamic world, not the Asian Islamic world, not other Islamic areas," he said.

On a trip to Turkey in April, President Obama said he wants to reach out to Muslims, find common ground.

The change is welcome, but people here want specifics.

"First issue is the Palestinian question - the unlimited support of the American governments for the Israeli expansionist policies, not for the survival of Israel, but Israel's expansionist policy," says Sadek.

"So if he (Obama) delivers some sort of timetable and a program of action - that would be highly appreciated in the Islamic world. It would defuse many of the revolutionaries, radical Islamic groups and neutralize the discourse being used against the United States."

Mohamed Mahdi Akef, sho heads Egypt's largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood is skeptical. "We welcome Obama and welcome whoever comes to Egypt, but deep inside me I feel that President Obama has inherited from his predecessors a very heavy legacy," he said.

The killing and displacement of Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine as well as Washington's support for Israel constitute that legacy, says Akef.

For now, he is not looking for action. He wants to hear Mr. Obama's vision. "The Arab and Muslim world expect from him that his perceptions are compatible with general civilized principles, that he does not accept injustice, oppression, dictatorship, corruption and tyranny in any part of the world," he said.

But Muslims want to hear more than nice words, says Sadek, whether it's about the war in Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or Washington's long-time support for autocratic rulers. "There should be a steady program with a timetable and that would give a very strong message to the entire Islamic world," he said.

The United States is widely viewed with suspicion in the Muslim world, especially here in the Middle East.

What President Obama says here will be listened to, but his future actions will be watched even more closely.

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