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Obama’s Middle East challenge - part I

By Fawaz Gerges - posted Monday, 22 June 2009

In a dramatic initiative, President Barack Obama has sought to reframe and shift the Middle East debate away from conflict and war to co-operation and partnership. His choice of Cairo as the location of this initiative, and his recognition of the Palestinians’ plight, have already led some within the Muslim community to sense a powerful change in the US’s attitude to Muslims. This change may even win over more mainstream Islamists and former Jihadis and associates of Osama bin Laden provided the momentum of goodwill created by the rhetoric is built upon and not allowed to fizzle out.

Obama’s speech in Cairo offered a powerful contrarian paradigm to that of bin Laden and reminded his Muslim audience that the relationship between Islam and the Christian West includes centuries of coexistence and co-operation, not just conflict and religious war.

Unlike his preaching predecessor, George W Bush, Obama fully understands that the raging battle between the US and al Qaeda’s transnational jihadis can’t be won on the battlefield. In the eyes of the world, particularly Islam, America lost its moral compass and the world’s hearts and minds. Al Qaeda’s war paradigm, if not its terrorist tactics, gained momentum and credibility all over Muslim lands. Opinion polls showed that large majorities of Muslims believed that the US was waging a war against their culture and religion, and that the US was trying to subjugate their people.


President Obama could not have chosen a more appropriate venue than Egypt, a pivotal country, to deliver his message to the Muslim world. From the 1956 Suez crisis, when the Eisenhower administration played a key role in forcing US allies - Britain, France, and Israel - to terminate their ill-fated invasion of Egypt to the Cold War rivalry that pitted the US against nationalist leaders like Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser, US-Egyptian relations have swung from one extreme to the other.

But, as the first Arab country to end the state of war with Israel, official Egypt has been a crucial player in maintaining the pro-US regional security system. And as the Arab world’s most populous nation (approximately 80 million people) and its cultural capital, Egypt is a microcosm and driver of Arab politics.

As in other Arab countries, Egypt’s political authoritarianism is the norm, not the exception. Autocratic Arab rulers have repressed legitimate political dissent and stifled personal initiative and innovation, triggering the rise of extremism. It is no wonder, then, that religious-based opposition groups like the Muslim Brotherhood are the main beneficiaries of failing pro-Western Muslim rulers.

Like other Muslims, 78 per cent of Egyptians say they have an unfavourable view of the United States, an alarming finding given that Egypt is the second largest recipient of US foreign aid ($2 billion annually) after Israel since signing the Camp David peace accords.

For all these reasons, Obama went to Cairo to address the critical challenges facing the United States in the Muslim world.

But more groundbreaking and most startling were his talking points on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


Of all sitting American presidents, only Obama has spoken so explicitly and eloquently about the suffering of the Palestinian people - Muslims and Christians - in the pursuit of a homeland. He spoke movingly of their dislocation, humiliation and occupation.

Of all sitting American presidents, only Obama has linked the construction of a Palestinian state so closely to America’s strategic interests: “That is in Israel’s interest, Palestine’s interest, America’s interest, and the world’s interest. And that is why I intend to personally pursue this outcome with all the patience that the task requires.”

Obama is the only contemporary American president who used the historic term “Palestine” more than once in his speech, a bold move. He made it publicly clear that the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories. He also said that “Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s”.

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Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online ( Copyright © 2009, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, Yale University.

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About the Author

Fawaz A. Gerges is a Professor of Middle Eastern Politics and International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, London University. His forthcoming book is titled: The Making of the Modern Middle East, Public Affairs.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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