Egyptians Look For More Than Rhetoric From Obama

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A worker applies paint to the fence surrounding the Sphinx on the outskirts of Cairo. i

A worker applies paint to the fence surrounding the Sphinx, one of Egypt's most famous landmarks, on the Giza Plateau outside Cairo on Tuesday, in preparation for a possible visit by Obama. Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images
A worker applies paint to the fence surrounding the Sphinx on the outskirts of Cairo.

A worker applies paint to the fence surrounding the Sphinx, one of Egypt's most famous landmarks, on the Giza Plateau outside Cairo on Tuesday, in preparation for a possible visit by Obama.

Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images

Cairo, the Egyptian capital, is gearing up for President Obama's visit Thursday and his much-anticipated address to the Muslim world. While news headlines have focused on Obama's outreach, the reaction to his speech will be equally, if not more, important.

And if the president wants to win over the Muslim world, he will have to win over Egyptians first.

Across Cairo, cleanup crews are sweeping streets, painting light posts and hosing down dusty traffic lights.

Cairo University, the venue for Obama's speech, is preparing for the international spotlight, too. But Mohmen Hafez, a professor of German literature at the university, has another cleanup in mind.

"So we don't know exactly if [Obama] is going to do something about the mess here — yes, the mess in the Middle East," she says.

Parsing Obama's Message

Hisham Kassem, a newspaper publisher and democracy activist, has a more specific agenda.

"There are high hopes that he will say the right things and make a clear commitment to civil liberties," he says.

By choosing Egypt, an American ally ruled by a repressive regime, Obama's stand on human rights and democracy will be in the spotlight, Kassem says.

"But if on that day he fails to show a commitment, then I think the discourse will change completely. I and a lot of the democracy community will know where Obama stands on this matter," he says.

Kassem and other members of Egypt's secular opposition will attend the speech at Cairo University. The guest list also includes members of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group with broad popular support.

Hafez Maraji is the host of Eye on America, a weekly Arabic television program that will be broadcasting the speech to a wider regional audience.

There will be thousands of television hours devoted to parsing Obama's every phrase and gesture. Can the president start to mend the fractured relationship with the Muslim world with words? That's the challenge, says Maraji.

"I think the benefit and the most important thing that Obama would like to achieve is to push the reset button with the Muslim world," he says.

Words Not Enough

But a change in tone won't be enough, Maraji says. The audience expects concrete proposals on what they care about most: How does the president revive hope for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal? What does he say about the troop buildup in Afghanistan, the drawdown in Iraq, talks with Iran, prisoner abuse at Guantanamo? These are the issues that count the most, Maraji says.

"It is very dangerous to raise expectations of people, and then when you don't deliver, you'll have frustration; that's what I'm worried about," he says.

Obama is expected to deliver a call for new and ambitious regional diplomacy. Egypt is a key player.

As for democracy, Obama has said America cannot impose it with lectures or military means — a change in tactics that is welcome, says Hossam Zaki, a government spokesman.

"It is important to talk about democracy, but it is also important where you're talking, to whom you are talking, to know how to speak about democracy," Zaki says.

Balancing Diplomacy Democracy

Egypt calls itself a democracy, but it is run like a police state. Will the Obama administration tolerate a certain level of domestic repression for regional cooperation in the complex negotiations ahead? It worries Hossam Hamlaway, a journalist, blogger and democracy advocate.

"I really do not have an ounce ... of hope that Obama is going to make any sort of change here in the region for our benefit," Hamlaway says.

Obama will have to convince skeptics, especially among the young, Hamlaway says. He says he is willing to listen, carefully, as will many Egyptians, to how the president talks to their leaders and to them.

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