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Obama Speech Gets Mostly Positive React; With Some Skepticism


Barack Obama's speech in Cairo Thursday, his broad appeal to Muslims for a new beginning in their relationship with the United States, has been met with mostly positive reactions, but also some skepticism over whether he'll follow up his words with deeds.

There's little doubt about Barack Obama's "star power" here, judging from the warm reception he got at Cairo University and the comments from many of the students invited to attend his speech.

President Obama's balancing act

But it wasn't just the students who were impressed. Hassan Nafaa is professor of political science at Cairo University, and said he found Mr. Obama's speech very balanced.

"He gave a message to everybody and I do believe that it is a message that the United States is willing to open a new page with the Muslim world, with the Arab world," he said.

Mr. Obama called for a new relationship between Muslims around the world and the U.S. - one based on a common future rather than a divided past, one based on mutual respect and understanding, not suspicion.

A Saudi Arabian perspective

Khaled Maeena is editor in chief of the English language Arab News newspaper in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He too was impressed.

"I was impressed not only by the choice of words, by the examples he used, but also by his frankness because he did say to the Muslim world, that he's willing to meet these people, but at the same time, they also have to change," he said.

Judging from comments after the speech, that frankness went over well, as did Mr. Obama's respectful tone when talking about Islam. The fact that he opened his speech with the traditional Arabic greeting, that he quoted the Koran several times, and that he praised the Islamic world's many contributions in history, all brought ringing applause from his audience.

Shining a light on women's rights

For Nehad Abolkomsan, the president's focus on the issue of women's rights was an important part of his speech.

"On principle, to speak about women's rights is something very valuable for us," she said.

Abolkomsan is head of the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights. She believes Mr. Obama's words can translate into specific policies in bilateral development projects.

"Starting from development, micro-credit issues, they will ask where are women's rights [in this], what is the balance, how many women will benefit from the project. That is very important," she said.

The question of Mideast dictators

Many were also encouraged by Mr. Obama's call for democracy, government accountability to the people and respect for human rights. But Egyptian lawmaker Hazem Mansour says it remains to be seen whether the U.S. continues its long-standing support for dictators in the region or whether it will listen to what the people want.

"People in the Middle East look for real democratic life, real fair elections, real free life, free to express [themselves], free to have new newspapers, free to join any party as they can, no jails, no military tribunals and like that," he said.

Mansour is an independent member of parliament, but part of the de-facto representation of the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

Deeds, not words

President Obama did not shy away from contentious issues, such as the need to fight extremism and to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions. But judging from comments here, the issue uppermost in the minds of many is the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Some felt the president took an even-handed approach while others felt he still tilted more towards Israel. And, many wondered if he would put words into action when confronting Israel. Political analyst, Hassan Nafaa had a note of caution.

"He cannot achieve any real success on any other issue unless he is really serious about resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. Until now, he's given the impression he's really serious about it. But, we expect a challenge from Israel. Is he capable to meet [face] this challenge? We don't know," Nafaa added.

There is a widespread sense here that President Obama's words mark a good start to a new relationship, but there is also a sense that words must be followed by deeds to be believed.

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