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Obama's Pledge of Aid Welcomed in Mideast, Politics Less So

Obama's Pledge of Aid Welcomed in Mideast, Politics Less So
Obama's Pledge of Aid Welcomed in Mideast, Politics Less So

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Reaction to President Barack Obama's speech on the Middle East has prompted some initial mixed reactions in Egypt.  While plans for economic and development aid are being welcomed, hopes for a more consistent stand on regional unrest and a new approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict were largely dashed.

The promise of aid, in the form of debt relief and loan guarantees, is helping allay some fears in Egypt and Tunisia.  Popular uprisings in the two nations succeeded in toppling the old governments, but at a cost.   

"The economic situation has become very dire, particularly on the financial front. There is a big financing gap and this needs to be closed right away.  So I think any amount of money and any opportunity to have access to cash would help this situation immensely," said Magda Kandil, director of the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies.

Both Tunisia and Egypt have been hard hit by a drop in tourist revenue.  In Egypt, remittance earnings are down after more than a million of its workers fled the conflict in neighboring Libya.  General uncertainty has kept foreign investment at bay and led to hoarding of key commodities at home - all elements that put the chances of a peaceful transition at risk.   

Economist Kandil says that the way the economic assistance has been structured will help.  "I think the beauty about the debt forgiveness is that it starts in the form of debt swap, which means that the money will not be just loose cash that the government can do whatever it wants to do with it," he said.

She is encouraged that some of the money is slotted for development projects, a key issue, she argues, at this juncture.

The economic part of Mr. Obama's speech appears to be the one aspect that will resonate strongly in the weeks and months to come.

The rest, according to Egyptian publisher and long-time democracy advocate Hisham Kassem, was a profound disappointment.

"He [Obama] reiterated double standards while trying to package it as a support for freedom.  But we saw how he made clear that [Libyan leader] Moammar Gadhafi has to leave, and then referring to the actions of the government of Bahrain as 'the rule of law,' enforcing the rule of law - that was the bottom line - no.  No, no," Kassen said.   

Kassem argues that the unevenness of Mr. Obama's approach to the region extends to Saudi Arabia - like Bahrain, a key ally and a fierce suppressor of government opponents - which the president did not mention at all.

As for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, there was hope that the U.S. leader would seize this period of dramatic change to take an equally dramatic new approach to the peace process.  Washington had tried to dampen such expectations, but again, some sense a missed opportunity.  

Publisher Kassem says he had hoped that in the political part of the speech, Mr. Obama would offer something tangible, whether on peace talks, or a tougher stand on Syria.   He recalls an earlier effort by the president to reach out to the region, during a 2009 address in Cairo.

"I personally, at the time, in spite of a lot of optimism, thought he said nothing, had no time frames, no concrete plans for anything.  And it turned out to be true.  And now he's doing more of the same, almost two years later," Kassen said.

The question now may be how much that argument will even matter.  The uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East began, as Mr. Obama noted, without U.S. political help.  The economic aid, however, could ensure that the successful ones can carry through.

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