By Scott Wilson and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, May 9, 2009
President Obama will travel to Egypt next month to deliver his promised address to the Muslim world, culminating a long and politically sensitive selection process by choosing as his venue an Arab nation governed by an autocratic U.S. ally who faces strong internal Islamist opposition.
Those elements will present challenges to Obama as he delivers a speech his advisers described yesterday as the next step in his effort to dispel perceptions in the Muslim world that the United States is in conflict with Islam. It will be the first stop in a trip that will also take him to Buchenwald, the former Nazi concentration camp in Germany, and then to Normandy, in France, to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landing.
By selecting Egypt, Obama could expose himself to criticism in the Arab Middle East for showing tacit support for President Hosni Mubarak, who has governed the country for nearly three decades with scant tolerance for political opposition. The 81-year-old Mubarak, who is scheduled to meet with Obama in Washington this month, has used his security services to harass and detain political rivals and is preparing for his son to succeed him.
U.S. support for Mubarak and other unelected Arab leaders has been interpreted across the Middle East as a hypocritical element of American foreign policy, particularly in the past eight years, during which the Bush administration made promoting democracy the centerpiece of its diplomacy in the region.
The Muslim Brotherhood, in particular, has used the U.S. support for Mubarak, who has jailed members of the Islamist opposition for years, to whip up anti-American sentiment in Egypt and beyond.
But White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said yesterday that the selection of Egypt for the June 4 speech should not be viewed as an endorsement of Mubarak's government. He said that Egypt "in many ways represents the heart of the Arab world" and noted that "the issues of democracy and human rights are things that are on the president's mind, and we'll have a chance to discuss those in more depth on the trip."
The city where Obama will deliver the address has not been selected.
"This isn't a speech to leaders," Gibbs said. "This is a speech to many, many people and a continuing effort by this president and this White House to demonstrate how we can work together to ensure the safety and security and the future well-being, through hope and opportunity, of the children of this country and of the Muslim world."
Obama arrived in office eager to remake U.S. relations with the Muslim world.
Three key factors have contributed to millions of Muslims' bitterness toward the United States: the Bush administration's war in Iraq; detention and interrogation policies -- embodied by the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib; and a tilt toward Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians.
Obama, who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, the most-populous Muslim country, took some immediate steps to change the U.S. image among Muslims. He ordered the closure of the Guantanamo Bay brig within a year, banned interrogation techniques he has called torture, and granted his first interview as president to the al-Arabiya satellite channel.
During a visit to Turkey last month, Obama told that predominantly Muslim nation's Grand National Assembly that the United States "is not and never will be at war with Islam."
Gibbs said yesterday: "I think that's what the president will build on. All of this gives the president the opportunity hopefully to extend a hand to those that in many ways are like us but just simply have a different religion."
Administration officials said Obama's trip next month will not include Israel, as some had expected. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will visit the White House on May 18.
Netanyahu has yet to endorse Obama's position that allowing the creation of a Palestinian state on land Israel occupied in the 1967 Middle East war is the best way to end the wider Arab-Israeli conflict and to ensure the Jewish state's long-term security.
Obama's budget for fiscal 2010 includes $1.3 billion in military aid for Egypt and $250 million in economic assistance, a 25 percent increase from the Bush administration's proposed economic aid package. Human rights advocates have complained, however, that the Obama administration has agreed to the Egyptian government's demand that the economic aid cannot go to civil society groups unless they are sanctioned by the government.
In a statement yesterday, Egypt's ambassador to Washington, Sameh Shoukry, said Obama's speech "offers a unique opportunity to deepen America's engagement with the Arab and Muslim world, and that Egypt offers a unique venue for that objective."