Obama Wins Some Muslim Friends With Speech in Cairo

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 5, 2009

CAIRO, June 4 -- President Obama's choice of Egypt as the site of his address to the Muslim world endeared him to Egyptians, who are always proud to host a foreigner and show off their history.

That he came to downtown Cairo, instead of heading to the Sinai beach resorts where the country's diplomatic gatherings are often held, told them he was serious about connecting on a personal level.

When he sprinkled 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 problems, said Tarek Ali, 44, a driver for a government agency. "He really seems to want to move forward."

The appreciation for the new approach from a U.S. president seemed widespread among Middle Eastern Muslims after a speech in which Obama spoke forthrightly about American missteps in the region but also argued that the United States does not fit "the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire."

Some long-standing U.S. adversaries dismissed the address. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in advance of Obama's remarks that "beautiful speeches" cannot change the hard feelings toward the United States. Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa "have witnessed aggressive actions by America" for a long time, he said, and they "hate America from the bottom of their heart." In Lebanon, a Hezbollah official dismissed the speech as a "sermon," news services reported, while a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt characterized it as "public relations" with little substance.

But for many Muslims, Obama's nearly hour-long address at Cairo University was a much-welcomed clearing of the air.

"It is the first time I've seen a U.S. president speaking like this," said Ahmed Abdullah, 45, a communications worker in Baghdad.

The breadth and balance of the speech captivated many listeners in Cairo. Obama was firm about the "unbreakable" bond between the United States and Israel, yet he denounced the "daily humiliations" endured by Palestinians, declared that their situation "is intolerable" and reaffirmed his commitment to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

"We know that the U.S. is close to Israel, but he also said that Israel uses too much force," said Salah Sharawy, 42, one of a group of Egyptian men watching the speech on television at a smoky coffeehouse in Cairo's working-class Bulaq neighborhood.

Haysam Bahgoub, 25, said Obama showed respect for local values. When speaking about the veiling of Muslim women, Bahgoub noted, the U.S. president framed the issue as a personal decision that should not be forced on anyone, yet should be respected if made freely. "He knows that we are Oriental people, and we respected that," said Bahgoub, a receptionist at the Nile Hilton hotel.

Many listeners focused on the sections of the speech they most wanted to hear.

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