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Cairo counts down to Obama
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 28 - 05 - 2009

Dina Ezzat sounds out the mood in town as preparations are stepped up for the much-anticipated arrival of US President Barack Obama
"So he is coming to Cairo. Why not go to Sharm El-Sheikh? Don't they all go to Sharm El-Sheikh? It will be heavy traffic. It is next Thursday? I will not work that day." This was the comment offered by Anwar, a taxi driver, Wednesday morning.
Anwar spoke after hearing the news, on his radio, that Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit, General Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman and Minister of Trade and Industry Rachid Mohamed Rachid "are conducting talks in Washington to prepare for the visit of the US president to Cairo on Thursday where he will deliver a speech to the Muslim and Arab worlds".
For Anwar, the Obama visit is not particularly reason to rejoice. In fact, Anwar, is not interested in the speech that Obama will deliver. "What message and what speech? And what will we do with his words when Iraqis are being killed and when Israelis are killing Palestinians?" Anwar asked. He added that Arabs should expect nothing from Obama or from anyone, "no matter what they tell us".
"If I am weak you will treat me as a weak person and only if I am strong will you give me my due respect. This is the way things are," Anwar added. As far as he is concerned, Arabs and Muslims need to find their own strength and not expect Obama to do them justice.
Obama's visit to Egypt and his choice of Cairo -- especially Cairo University -- as a venue to deliver a speech to Muslim and Arab nations was received with much enthusiasm in official quarters. State officials and their spokesmen attempt to paint Obama's choice as a clear message to all concerned about the "uncontested status of Cairo" as the leading Arab and Muslim capital.
For their part, critics -- especially human rights activists and democracy advocates -- suggest that the choice of Obama signals Washington's intention to condone "dictatorship" and compromise the cause of democratisation in the Middle East. The release of opposition figure Ayman Nour more than three months ago, and the court verdict issued this week to clear opposition figure Saadeddin Ibrahim of charges of launching an anti-Egyptian PR campaign, failed to assure those who fear that the US president might not be as tough in calling for democratisation as his predecessor was.
Egyptian officials concede that democracy and human rights will not disappear from the agenda in bilateral talks with their American counterparts. The early months of the Obama administration has made this clear, one Washington-based Egyptian diplomat told Al-Ahram Weekly in interview. The big difference, according to this diplomat, between the Obama administration and that of former US president George W Bush is in style and approach, not so much substance.
The volume of questions concerning Egypt- US bilateral relations -- especially the issue of US economic and military aid to Egypt -- is unlikely to be addressed in talks that President Hosni Mubarak will hold with Obama during his eight-hour visit to Cairo. "This file was supposed to be examined during talks that President Mubarak was supposed to have in Washington this week but that were cancelled due to the loss of the president's grandson. These matters will wait until President Mubarak visits Washington in the autumn," an Egyptian diplomat said.
In talks Thursday, Mubarak and Obama will focus more on regional issues: Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and above all, the Arab-Israeli struggle. Egyptian and US sources say that for Cairo, as for Washington, pursuing a constructive and productive Middle East peace process is a priority. Egypt is reassured by the commitment that Obama has demonstrated to pursue the "two-state solution", Egyptian Ambassador to the US Sameh Choukri said this week. As such, Choukri added, Egypt is willing to cooperate with Obama in re- launching this process.
In Washington Tuesday, Abul- Gheit and Suleiman shared with US National Security Adviser James Jones and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton their thoughts on how to move forward on peacemaking. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was scheduled to meet with Obama in Washington Tuesday on the same issue. And ahead of arriving to Cairo, Obama will visit King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, sponsor of the Arab peace initiative, for talks on ways to advance the cause of Middle East peace.
As yet, it is not clear what Obama has in mind. However, according to informed sources and press leaks, the US president seems to be playing with the idea of hosting intensive Arab- Israeli -- not just Palestinian- Israeli -- peace talks to which key Arab players, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Arab League along with the representatives of the Quartet, would be present to conclude a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace deal that would allow for the "launch" of a Palestinian state "that would gradually grow from a dependent to an independent state".
Obama's thoughts for Middle East peace are expected to be announced at the end of consultations he is holding with the Israelis, Arabs, Europeans and Russians. Late June or early July is suggested as tentative dates for the possible announcement of the Obama Middle East peace plan, according to sources.
However, as one Egyptian diplomat who served in Washington during the Obama presidential campaign suggested, "nothing is done until it is done. Israeli resistance to launching conclusive peace talks should not be underestimated and Obama is not going to go too far against the tide; this we know very well. We're under no illusions that Obama's presidency could come and go with the Arab-Israeli struggle still unresolved."
Egyptian and Arab press and media have been submerged with analyses and speculations about what Obama will bring to the Middle East -- not just during his two-leg visit to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but during his next four years in the White House. (see pp. 3,14&15)

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