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COMMENTARY: Fever Dreams: Obama's visit and the future of the Mideast
Published in Daily News Egypt on 29 - 05 - 2009

Last week I awoke from a fever dream in Zamalek, sleepwalking, believing the ceiling was about to collapse on me. Still asleep, I rushed from the bedroom blindly through the empty, hushed apartment to the window.
The listless 3 am calm, punctuated by the ragged beeping of prowling taxis, slowly shook me from my stupor, and I stared down onto the street, a block from where only a few hours before, a young man on a motorcycle had allegedly tried to set Ayman Nour on fire. It was not far from where I had stood days before chatting with a friend who told me that President Hosni Mubarak's grandson had just died in France.
It's now less than a week until Barack Obama's much-anticipated visit to Cairo, and his big plans to reset the table in the Middle East and the Muslim world are being quietly undone. The talking heads on TV say that things are different now because the Arab world is firmly united behind a seven-year-old peace plan that was never taken seriously by anyone outside of Riyadh. But does anyone believe that?
The assault on Nour was particularly puzzling - the victim himself, fresh from several years in prison for nothing in particular, initially noted dryly that he wouldn't bother filing a police report, since nothing would ever happen. Perhaps the regime had nothing to do with it, preoccupied as Mubarak is with tragedy.
Sturdier hearts than Mubarak's rarely heal from such a loss as his, and as much as you want to sympathize with him on a human level, you also think, how many 12-year-olds died needing their medication during the siege of Gaza? How many Lebanese12-year-olds evaporated in the lightning flashes of Israeli bombs in 2006? In any case, the grieving Mubarak skipped his state visit to Washington.
And in that expansive 3 am blackness, I thought, what is the likelihood that some knucklehead on a motorcycle got it in his head to set Ayman Nour on fire? What could Obama possibly say about any of this that would make a difference? Stop throwing your opponents in prison? Hold real elections? Pretty please, with $1.5 billion in US aid on top?
The most jaw-dropping talk comes from those who tell us that maybe Benjamin Netanyahu, newly restored to the Israeli throne, will finally bring peace, that the sheer force of Obama's personality, and the new turn in American foreign policy, will force a peace agreement on the recalcitrant Netanyahu and his allies.
What is the likelihood, really that Netanyahu, of all people, is willing to forge a just peace with the Palestinians? Didn't those same analysts secretly or not-so-secretly hope the same thing about Sharon years ago, and Olmert after him? What did they ever deliver to anyone except dead bodies and broken promises?
All these years, the Israelis said that they wanted peace, but that there was no one to talk to. No partner for peace. And now suddenly the elites realize that there's actually no one to talk to in Tel Aviv, the occupants of the Two-State hotel having checked out and left Obama and Mahmoud Abbas with the mini-bar tab.
What Obama is going to do is come to Egypt and give a better-sounding version of the same speech we've heard over and over, since those 3 am silences were drifting from the lawn across from my Clinton-era dorm room, the need for reform, the rule of law, dialogue, understanding, two states, partnership, patience, peace.
The new President of the United States, glowing with his global approval ratings, is likely to mention how his government ended the practice of torture, without mentioning that it's still okay for other countries to do it for us. He is likely to mention that it would be nice if Egypt were more democratic, but probably won t add that his new administration has made it clear that it doesn't really care that much about Arab democracy. He is likely to mention his commitment to the two-state solution without convincing anyone that such a solution is near.
This new rhetoric of cooperation, respect, and non-belligerence will certainly help in the Muslim world - it may even score the occasional diplomatic victory. What it will not do is bring real democracy to Egypt or a just peace to Israel-Palestine. Those problems have causes that were bigger than the Bush Administration s attitude.
Obama will mean what he says, for whatever it's worth. It will be brilliantly sunny in Cairo, recognized at last as the heart of the Arab world, and throngs of human beings, eager for peace and prosperity, will cheer him on.
Don t be surprised if even the most hardened skeptics among you feel a touch of optimism after he s finished.
But Obama will leave, and night will fall once again on Cairo and the Arab world, leaving us with questions and fever dreams, staring out windows and yearning for the soft light that signals the coming of dawn.
David Faris is a PhD candidate in the Political Science Department at the University of Pennsylvania. He is currently in Cairo for research purposes.


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