By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 4, 2009 4:14 PM
CAIRO, June 4 -- The fact that Barack Obama chose Egypt as the location for Thursday's address to the Muslim world endeared him to the locals, who are always proud to host a foreigner and even prouder when it shows off their history.
The fact that he came to downtown Cairo, instead of heading to the Sinai beach resorts where diplomatic gatherings are often held, told them he was serious about connecting on a personal level.
And when he started sprinkling his speech with words from the Koran, and balanced support for Israel with a strong call for a Palestinian state, the deal was closed.
"I didn't expect him to go this far" in confronting the region's core problems, said Tarek Ali, 44, a driver for a government agency. "He really seems to want to move forward."
That initial conclusion seemed unanimous among the crowd of men gathered at a local coffee shop to watch Obama's Thursday speech.
Although Obama was blunt about the United States' "unbreakable bonds" with Israel, that statement was quickly followed with others about Palestinian "suffering" since Israel's founding in 1948 and the need to curb Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and establish a Palestinian state.
Acknowledging the negative stereotypes of Islam that took root in America after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Obama at the same time said Muslim nations needed to fix their own exaggerated views of the United States as a country bent on dominating them.
That balance, applied across a broad range of topics, left people feeling that the U.S. president with a Muslim father and middle name was sincere about finding a cooperative path. There was no shortage of suggestions about things the Arab and Muslim world needed to fix, but those who listened to the speech said they also sensed a clear appreciation for the culture and an acknowledgement of American mistakes.
"We know that the U.S. is close to Israel, but he also said that Israel uses too much force," said Salah Sharawy, 42. "He wants the whole world to move forward."
As the meaning of Obama's speech is parsed in the region, there will be plenty of attention paid to the likelihood -- or not -- that the United States will offer up new policies to help bring about the change he seeks. Traditional foes of the U.S., like Iran, focused on that question, and leaders in Tehran said they doubted much would change.
Ahmed Yousef, a spokesman for the Islamist Hamas movement, told al-Jazeera television in Gaza that the speech was reminiscent of Martin Luther King Jr. in its vision -- but that it would not make Hamas inclined to recognize Israel.
"What he said about Islam was great. What he said about Palestinian suffering and a Palestinian state is great," Yousef said. But "we have a lot of reservations."
In Cairo, however, the details of Obama's speech were almost less important than the official build-up and symbolism around it. After years in which the United States was linked here almost exclusively to violence in Muslim countries and support for Israel, suddenly the state broadcasting service was beaming uplifting scenes of the American and Egyptian flags flying side by side, and Obama's smiling face superimposed over graphics of the Pyramids and local landmarks. A small icon -- the Egyptian and American flags woven together in a yin and yang -- was kept on the screen throughout the morning.
"Egyptian people are very quick to forgive," said Mosad Ashour, a producer at a local television studio. "People insult us and even the next day, it is over."