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Obama speech sparks hopes and fears

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In a keynote speech delivered in Cairo on Thursday, United States President Barack Obama called for a "new beginning" in ties with the Muslim world.

This content was published on June 5, 2009 - 15:19

He acknowledged the "years of distrust" between the two sides, and admitted that a single speech would not be enough to eradicate such attitudes. As a beginning, he urged them to try to find common ground in mutual respect.

The roots of the distrust run deep on the Islamic side, said Arnold Hottinger, a Swiss Middle East expert.

"It is based on actions of America which do not correspond to the ideals of America," he told swissinfo.ch.

"For example, wanting to make democracy and causing trouble in Iraq, not democracy at all. Or wanting to be fair in the Israeli question and being one-sided – this is the great litmus test for the Arabs."

As for countries like Afghanistan or Pakistan, people will be looking to see whether he puts a stop to bombings that have killed many innocent people, he pointed out.

Raymond Loretan, who spent five years as Switzerland's consul-general in New York, attributed the distrust among Americans to the destruction of the Twin Towers in 2001.

"I think the big mistrust started with the Bush era and 9/11," he said.

"We shouldn't forget the huge trauma of the American people. The reaction in the first phase was very understandable, with the expedition into Afghanistan, but then the big misunderstanding started with the Iraq war, where no one understood why the Bush administration attacked Iraq when the target was somewhere else."

He pointed out that the start of the US "war on terror", which tended to lump all Muslims together, triggered a violent reaction in the Muslim world.

Picking up the pieces

Hottinger agrees that relations deteriorated badly during the Bush era.

"This is the great difficulty of Obama. He showed good will, and everybody recognised that, but can he eliminate those eight years of tragedies for the Arabs, for all the Muslims?"

Some commentators believe that one challenge Obama will have to face is a choice between supporting Arab states with autocratic regimes that are friendly to the US and supporting democratic forces within those states that seek to oust those regimes.

One example is Egypt, where Obama chose to make his speech. While the regime is friendly toward the US, the Geman-language Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper described its president, Hosni Mubarak, as a "notorious autocrat." Hottinger plays down these contradictions.

"I think it's not as clear as we see it," he said. "In Egypt, there will be 80 per cent of the people who say: 'Mubarak is our boss.' There's always been a boss around. Only 20 per cent are sufficiently Europeanised to say, 'We want something else, we want democracy', and who have an idea of what democracy is. I don't think this contradiction – although it does exist – of talking to the one who is in power, is as sharp as the contradiction with Israel."

Israel-Palestine

Indeed, perhaps the most eagerly awaited part of Obama's speech was what he had to say about the Israel-Palestine conflict.

A change in US policy towards Israel is already evident, with Obama calling for a halt to the construction of settlements in the occupied West Bank. His words have led rightwing Israeli militants to describe him as a "psychopathic anti-Semite", the French-language newspaper Le Temps reported.

This reaction came despite the fact that Obama was careful to stress that the US had an "unbreakable" bond with Israel.

But he also described the Palestinian situation as "intolerable".

The Israeli government issued a statement saying it hoped the speech would lead to "a new era of reconciliation".

Hottinger sees Obama's task as "very difficult", not least because of the dissension on the Palestinian side between Hamas – which rules in Gaza and the US regards as a terrorist organisation – and the Fatah movement.

The situation is likely to be complicated further if, as Hottinger predicts, Hamas wins the elections that are due to be held.

"I really don't know if in his own mind he has recognised that he has to talk to Hamas," he commented.

At home Obama has to deal with what Loretan described as the "huge distrust" of not only the Israeli lobby, but also American Jews in general.

But Hottinger says Israelis are divided, and it is hard to tell whether his speech will help the doves.

Dangerous hopes

Obama was given a standing ovation, and although Swiss newspapers are reporting some scepticism among people on the ground in the Middle East, this is balanced by expressions of hope.

But hope could be dangerous, according to Hottinger, since failure could lead to severe disappointment. He fears that many Arabs may be unrealistic about what Obama can actually do, believing that a simple change of heart by America could make everything perfect.

"But if he doesn't act on this, they will say, 'That's America. They speak one way, and do the opposite'," he warned.

Loretan puts Obama's call for change in a different context.

"Of course it's dangerous, but it's also an act of leadership," he said.

"If you don't want to do anything dangerous, don't be a candidate for the presidency of the United States. He was elected because he has this drive and courage and vision. Of course he is taking a huge risk, a personal risk and a political risk. But he who does not risk anything, doesn't get anything."

Julia Slater, swissinfo.ch

Reactions to Obama speech

Reactions in the Muslim world have been mixed. Here is a selection:

Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas: "an important step towards a new American policy."

Hamas: contained "tangible change" but also "contradictions".

Syrian-based radical Palestinian factions: "an attempt to mislead people"

Israeli government: hope for a "new reconciliation between the Arab-Muslim world and Israel"

Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak: "courageous" and "an encouragement to moderate elements who aspire for peace"

Lebanese Hezbollah: "no real change of position in America's regional policy"

Moqtada Sadr, radical Iraqi Shiite leader: "was, is and will remain hostile to Islam"

Arab League head, Amr Musa: "balanced"

Turkish president Abdullah Gül: "sincere, honest and realist"

Iranian state TV: "Attractive but unbelievable"

According to the French news agency, AFP, more than 30 Middle Eastern television stations broadcast the speech.

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