Workers Polish Cairo Ahead Of Obama's Visit

President Obama is delivering a major speech at Cairo University. Egypt is a long-standing ally of the U.S. Workers have been busy cleaning the city ahead of Obama's arrival.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

President Obama will be speaking at Cairo University. And though Egypt is a long-standing ally of the United States, many Egyptians are frustrated with the government of President Hosni Mubarak who's ruled for nearly three decades. There's also been frustration with U.S. policy in the region in recent years.

Joining us now is NPR's Deborah Amos who's been following preparations for the president's visit. Good morning.

DEBORAH AMOS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Tell us what has been going on in the city in advance of the president's arrival. I know they've been painting the area that he's going to speak in.

AMOS: Painting, washing, primping, hedge clipping, I saw a water truck yesterday that was washing down the traffic lights. There has been a massive cleanup on the president's route in from the airport into the city, as well as here at Cairo University where I'm standing out in front of the hall where the president will speak.

MONTAGNE: This is a private group that he's speaking to. Tell us about the guest list for the speech.

AMOS: It's a significant guest list, Renee, because the U.S. Embassy had a hand in some parts of the list and have invited the range of Cairo opposition, from the bloggers - in particular one called Sandmonkey, who is a permanent blogger in Cairo, all the way to the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist opposition. Now they are banned in Cairo, but they do own this independence in the Parliament. They have 88 seats there, 11 who are invited. Just a little while ago Barbara Ibrahim walked by me. Her husband, Saad Eddin Ibrahim is a leading dissident. He is not in Cairo because there are still charges pending against him.

MONTAGNE: And we spoke to him yesterday on this program. He's here in the United States.

AMOS: Indeed, and I asked her about that as she walked by and she said, well of course he's sad that misses it, but he can't endanger his own safety. What the guest list has done is brought the entire range of the opposition together under one roof, something that the Mubarak government would never do.

MONTAGNE: Did Mr. Obama get any pushback on filling this hall with dissidents?

AMOS: As far as we know, there was no pushback from the Mubarak government, but as far as we know, they were able to invite those people. That list was closely held. It's been leaking out over the past couple of days. It is significant. The opposition sees it as significant that they have all been invited from the most liberal of the bloggers to the most conservative of the Muslim Brotherhood. It really is unprecedented for an American president to reach out to that wide range of opposition in Egypt.

MONTAGNE: And given the invitation, was there any group or person who decided not to come?

AMOS: There was. This morning, the local press reported that one opposition group, Kefaya, which is in English - Enough - formed a few years ago to protest against the policies of this regime. They announced that they would be boycotting Obama's speech. They said they would do so because they wanted deeds not words. They are protesting the situation in Gaza and they said that they would not come today.

MONTAGNE: And you've been there for some days now, Deb, what are you hearing on the streets of Cairo?

AMOS: There is excitement among some parts of the city. This city also has a large segment of very poor people who are not paying attention one bit to what is happening here. What they know is that the streets are filled with security people. Many people stayed home. I have never seen the streets of Cairo as empty as they were this morning as we were driving to Cairo University. I've never seen so many security trucks, security police on the streets. So even if you wanted to go to work this morning, it would be very difficult to get there.

MONTAGNE: Deb, thanks very much.

AMOS: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Deborah Amos speaking to us from Cairo where President Obama will be speaking later today.

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Egyptians Look For More Than Rhetoric From Obama

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