In one of his most highly anticipated speeches since entering office, US President Barack Obama pledged a “new beginning” for relations in the Middle East in Cairo on Thursday.
Speaking to an audience of around 3000 people in the capital’s university, Mr. Obama covered a wide range of issues facing the region and the world at large.
The tone was bold throughout, even controversial at times, in an address which had one clear message at heart: that progress in the Middle East must be “based upon mutual interest and mutual respect.”
Impartiality and unity were strong themes carried throughout, as Mr. Obama warned his listeners, “Whatever we think of our past, we must not be prisoners to it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnerships, our progress must be shared.”
He silenced claims that his administration is ‘anti-Israel’ by stating that the bond between America and the Jewish state was “unbreakable”.
However, he also sought to ally himself with the Muslim world, initially greeting his audience with the words “assalaamu alaykum” and referring to himself once by his full name, “Barack Hussein Obama.”
Lasting just over 45 minutes, Mr. Obama’s speech contained three quotations from the Qur’an, the holy text of Islam, as well as one from the Jewish Torah.
Indeed, this was a speech in which Mr. Obama sought to mend bridges with the Muslim world, and religion was an important thread, woven regularly into the fabric of his rhetoric.
“There is one rule that lies at the heart of every religion: that we do unto others what we would have them do unto us”, he stated in his closing lines.
“This truth transcends nations and peoples... It’s a faith in other people and it’s what brought me here today.”
Appealing to the fundamental principles at the “heart of every religion”, Mr. Obama sought to establish some common ground in a region that has seen more sectarian violence than any other in modern history.
“All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time,” he said.
“The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart, or whether we commit ourselves to an effort – a sustained effort – to find common ground.”
As well as making these broad sweeping statements, the President addressed some of the pressing issues facing the Middle East. Much importance had previously been placed on this speech as a benchmark for how America would handle the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Mr. Obama was both candid and courageous, speaking boldly in defense of the Palestinian cause.
“The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable,” he said empathetically, likening the “daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation” to America’s own history of slavery and racial segregation.
However, he followed this by saying that both sides needed to make changes: Palestine, particularly Hamas, must reject violent means and accept Israel’s right to exist; Israel must stop the growth of illegal settlements in the West Bank and end the blockade currently in place over the Gaza strip.
Mr. Obama made his position very clear – “The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.”
For this ideal to ever have a chance of succeeding, he went on, there has to be total openness and honesty between all sides involved.
“[We must] say openly the things we hold in our hearts and that too often are said only behind closed doors.” Quoting a passage from the Qur’an, he added, “Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.”
On Iran and its nuclear ambitions, the President was just as frank, laying out his beliefs and countering popular arguments.
“No single nation should pick and choose which nations hold nuclear weapons,” he stated, adding that his vision was of “a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons.”
However, it was his acknowledgement of where America had in the past been at fault that won the President the most applause from his audience.
He admitted that in the wake of the September 11 attacks, America had occasionally acted contrary to its “traditions and ideals.”
He promised a new approach, highlighting his unequivocal opposition to the use of torture and his plan to close the US prison at Guantanamo Bay by early next year.
On democracy and liberty, again he exhibited refreshing humility – “America does not presume to know what is best for everyone.”
However, he did assert that America would always uphold and promote certain principles: the right to free speech, people’s right to choose who governs them and to have transparent government “that does not steal from the people”, as well to have confidence in the rule of law.
“These are not American ideals,” he concluded, “These are human rights.”
James L. Bullock, Vice President of the American University in Cairo, told reporters afterwards that the speech was “very well received” within the auditorium – “He had the audience in his hand.”
The speech certainly did elicit rampant applause throughout and Mr. Obama left the stage to a standing ovation. However, that matters little in the region as a whole.
Even before President Obama made his speech on Thursday, many came out in opposition against his attempts to re-invent the American image.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, claimed that it would take more than “words, speech and slogan” to change the “ugly, detested and rough” face of America throughout much of the Middle East.
Moreover, in the wake of his speech, reaction in Israel has been mixed.
“Obama ignored the fact that Palestinians have not abandoned terror,” said Habayit Hayehudi chairman, Daniel Herschkowitz.
“Our relations with America are based on friendship and not submission.” Zev Orlev, a member of the same party, was quoted in the Jerusalem Post as saying, “the answer to this is not capitulation and flattery, but rather negotiation to convince America of Israel’s position.”
President Obama, of all people, realises the enormity of the task he has set himself in the Middle East and if anything, these early reactions foretell the challenges and hostility he is yet to face. He himself stressed the fact that one speech cannot “eradicate years of mistrust.” But he was also right to believe it can make a difference.
This address, broadcast across the Muslim world from the capital of a Muslim country, illustrated the new President’s willingness to reach out to the Islamic community and mend bridges which have been damaged through decades of poor diplomacy.
His final words were of unity and, typically, God. He has spoken before of a “road to peace” in the Middle East. But it is not a road which lies before him and the leaders and people of the region, ready to be walked.
Instead, it must be laid down with care and patience, inch by inch. Although this speech will change nothing overnight, it may well in years to come be viewed as the first step along that long and difficult road.
The writer is a British intern at The New Times.