Painters, gardeners, designers, administrative faculty and students have been working feverishly. A new “cover look” is being prepared for the University of Cairo. Today, everything is expected to look better, brighter, happier.
This is where US President Barack Obama will deliver his much-expected policy speech today. Together with Egyptians, millions of people around the world will be listening to Obama’s message. Despite the events of the last few years, Cairo remains one of the important political capitals in the Arab world. Obama’s choice of Egypt for his speech is not misplaced. But there are questions that need to be raised. Egypt gets $1.7 billion from the US as part of an annual economic aid package. The American concern to keep Egypt “in line” and “on board” has wide support because Egypt’s support is seen essential in the region. While the US aid package has helped somewhat alleviate the heavy burden of Egypt’s poverty, it has not produced economic development. Cash flow and long-term economic development are two separate things. The regime is happy with the cash flow and seems to miss out on Egypt’s economic future.
Part of the aid money is directed to the promotion of political development and democracy. In recent years, the percentage has been increased by the US administration. But there is very little progress on the ground. The main social and political actors are barred from fully participating in the political process and occasionally imprisoned to discourage political activism. This will not serve Egypt’s political future.
Obama will be delivering his speech in an Egypt that has become the hotspot of the Arab political debate, a debate that extends from Morocco and Tunisia to Iraq and the Gulf. Egyptians and Arabs will tune in to Obama’s speech with some hope and enthusiasm, but also with fatigue and a sense of déjà vu. Obama still commands respect and credibility with Arabs and Muslims. After his speech in the Turkish Parliament on April 6 of this year, Obama met some of the expectations. But that was not a policy speech and certainly not addressed to the whole Muslim world. The Egypt speech is expected to be different.
The only way Obama will get the attention of the Arab and Muslim world is to be specific on all of the key policy issues. The Arab and Muslim audiences have heard many excellent and inspiring speeches. The history of modern Arabic political discourse is filled with them. But they have done very little to change the realities on the ground. Obama needs to be as specific as a president can be.
There are many issues Obama will have to address. Iraq will certainly be high on the agenda. But the one issue to which everybody will be listening with all ears is the Palestine issue. There is no bigger issue than Palestine in the Arab and Muslim world. Partial successes in Iraq, finding a way to deal with Iran, increasing economic cooperation with the Gulf countries, establishing stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan, improving bilateral relations with Arab countries… All of these pale in comparison to the weight of the Palestinian issue.
Will Obama say something new? People understand the fact that Obama stood his ground in his meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month. He probably pressed Netanyahu to make progress on stopping settlement activities. Their disagreement over the two-state solution also became public. According to a Newsweek report (June 1, 2009), Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, tried to walk a middle path at the annual meeting of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). After emphasizing the special relationship between the US and Israel, Emanuel said in relation to the Palestine issue, “This is a moment of truth for the state of Israel and the prospects for peace.” He also said, “Obama believes that our ability to confront the major challenge of Iran will be affected by our ability to show progress in the Arab-Israeli and