For Arabs, Obama’s speech is too little, too late

Correction: An earlier version of this article attributed the foundering of President Obama’s first effort to mediate a solution in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to Israeli intransigence. The article should have made clear that multiple factors caused the effort to fail. This version has been corrected.

May 19, 2011

The words were stirring, the emotions powerful and the intentions seemingly sincere. “Repression will fail . . . tyrants will fall,” President Obama declared solemnly. And America, he said, “cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights.”

But why, wondered those watching the televised speech in the region to which his comments were aimed, couldn’t he have said that before?

As the Arab Spring enters its sixth month, and at a time when some of the region’s autocrats are dramatically ratcheting up their repression, Obama’s effort to reset the U.S. relationship with a rapidly changing Middle East seemed to fizzle against the reality of America’s fading relevance.

Obama addressed for the first time the brutal crackdown in Syria, rebuked U.S.-allied Bahrain for its harsh oppression of Shiite dissidents and called, to Israel’s consternation, for a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict on the basis of Israel’s 1967 borders — an unprecedented step for a U.S. president.

But for many in the region, it was simply too little, too late.

“I don’t think this is going to fix his image. He should have said something from the very beginning, but we’ve been waiting,” said Fares Braizat of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Qatar.

“Most people have realized that what the U.S. does or does not do is no longer important because people took matters into their own hands and decided their own future,” he said. “So why should people care what he says? America is no longer an issue.”

It might not have helped that Obama chose to deliver his speech on a Thursday evening, the beginning of the weekend for most of the Arab world, when almost everyone goes out.

On the streets of the historic Khan el-Khalili market in Cairo, a few people paused in front of televisions tuned to Obama’s speech, but most showed more interest in the soap operas and sports events being broadcast elsewhere. In Libya’s capital, Tripoli, most people thronging the central marketplace seemed unaware that the U.S. president was speaking.

For those who paid attention, there were plenty of signals to suggest that the United States is intending to adopt a more engaged and influential role in determining how the Arab upheaval plays out. Few in the region have forgotten the initially hesitant — and, many thought, belated — U.S. support for the successful revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, which inspired the uprisings that are underway elsewhere.

Activists welcomed the toughest U.S. comments yet on Bahrain, the American ally that has brutally crushed its protest movement with the help of troops from Saudi Arabia — and, by extension, assumed U.S. complicity.

“Mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens and will not make legitimate calls for reform go away,” Obama said, calling for dialogue between the kingdom’s authorities and opposition leaders, most of whom are in jail.

Obama also delivered the strongest warning yet to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has been pursuing a relentlessly brutal effort to suppress a spontaneous and largely leaderless revolt in which at least 900 people have been killed. Many Syrians have interpreted Obama’s silence leading up to the speech as support for a regime whose fall many fear could lead to widespread regional instability.

“The Syrian people have shown their courage in demanding a transition to democracy,” Obama said. “President Assad now has a choice: He can lead that transition, or get out of the way.”

It was the first time Obama had spoken out against Assad since the Syrian revolt erupted two months ago, and although his words fell short of the demands of most Syrian activists for the outright departure of the regime, “it is important for Syrians to hear from Obama directly, to ask Bashar either to lead reform or go away,” said Wissam Tarif, who heads the human rights monitoring group Insan.

“But I wonder,” Tarif asked. “Does Obama really believe Bashar is capable of leading reform? We have not seen in the past eight weeks a president who is willing to reform.” Nevertheless, he said, the speech is “a step in the right direction.”

Obama was also up against the disappointments generated in the wake of his much-touted 2009 Cairo speech, in which he pledged to redouble U.S. efforts to seek a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, only to give up the undertaking once it floundered because of multiple factors.

“What he said in Cairo raised expectations so high, and then he did not deliver, so now no one thinks he is able to deliver anything,” Braizat said.

Many in the region were also quick to point out that Obama made no mention of Saudi Arabia or the other U.S.-allied Persian Gulf monarchies that have remained largely immune from the clamor for change sweeping the rest of the region, but whose repressive practices have been spotlighted by the new fervor for democracy.

“Dear U.S., as long as u r allied with tyrannical, hateful misogynistic Saudi Arabia, how can u expect democratic change to take place here,” the prominent Egyptian activist Mahmoud Salem wrote on Twitter, where he uses the moniker Sandmonkey.

Obama also made only a passing reference to the popular uprising in Yemen, another U.S. ally perceived as crucial in the fight against the terrorist network al-Qaeda. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh “needs to follow through on his commitment to transfer power” was all the U.S. leader said.

The impression was created of a superpower attempting to reconcile its strategic interests with its values and not entirely certain how to get it right, said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.

And the region didn’t seem convinced that the United States would get it right.

“Despite all the talk about ‘Let’s put U.S. values before U.S. interests,’ ” said Khaled Fahmy, chairman of the history department at the American University in Cairo, “it’s been U.S. interests that have been driving U.S. policy.”

Londono reported from Cairo. Correspondents Michael Birnbaum in Tripoli and Joel Greenberg in Jerusalem and special correspondent Muhammad Mansour in Cairo contributed to this report.

Liz Sly is the Post’s Beirut bureau chief. She has spent more than 15 years covering the Middle East, including the Iraq war. Other postings include Africa, China and Afghanistan.
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