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President Barack Obama travels to Cairo later this week to deliver a much anticipated address to the Muslim world. There are those who question the president's choice of Cairo for the speech. Egypt is governed by an autocratic ally of the United States, who faces strong internal Islamist opposition. But for Egyptians and many other Arabs, there is no question that Cairo is the proper setting for the historic speech.

NPR's Deborah Amos has the story.

(Soundbite of hymn)

DEBORAH AMOS: This is one of the oldest districts in Cairo, and I'm standing in the mosque at Al-Azhar University. The center of Islamic learning was founded in the 10th century. Students and scholars have been studying here for 1,000 years. When I ask Egyptians why they think President Barack Obama chose Cairo for a speech that aims to repair relations between America and the Muslim world, almost all of them answered, Mr. Obama is coming to Cairo because Al-Azhar University is here.

Professor MUSTAPHA KEMEL EL SAYYID (Al-Azhar University, Cairo): Al-Azhar, I think, is the oldest university in the world: 1,000 years old. It is a center of learning.

AMOS: And it's a modern institution, says Professor Mustapha Kemel El Sayyid. Offering degrees not just in theology, also in engineering, business and medicine.

Prof. SAYYID: Al-Azhar also stands for - I don't like to use this expression, but a moderate version of Islam, which makes complete harmony between the teachings of Islam and modern science.

AMOS: For Internet consultant Ibrahim El Houdaiby, Cairo is the right choice because of Al-Azhar students, thousands who come each year from all over the Muslim world.

Mr. IBRAHIM EL HOUDAIBY (Internet Consultant): You'll see students from Southeast Asia. You'll see students from Africa. You'll see students from everywhere coming to learn at Al-Azhar. So this is Egypt's history.

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AMOS: This is exam week. Lili Areyanti from Aceh, Indonesia is studying with her roommates, also Indonesian Muslims. Areyanti prepares for a test of a recitation of the Quran. She's studying Islamic law - so are three of the students who live and study together here. These young women say studies will be set aside for President Obama's speech.

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LILI AREYANTI: Yeah, we're definitely going to watch the TV and we used to follow it with the newspapers. And, you know, if we can go, we would love to go.

AMOS: Al-Azhar was reportedly on the shortlist as a backdrop for Mr. Obama's address. But the historic university is centered in the crowded heart of what's known as Medieval Cairo — of narrow streets and ancient bazaars. So Cairo University, on the other side of the Nile, won out, according to media reports citing security officials who said Cairo University was easier to lock down.

Still, speaking from a capital that's been the center of Islamic scholarship for centuries, adds symbolic weight to the president's message. Al-Azhar also raises some fundamental issues — for example, democracy and religious authority in an autocratic state, says Issandr el Amrani with the International Crisis Group.

Mr. ISSANDR EL AMRANI (International Crisis Group): Egyptians take a lot of pride in Al-Azhar. It's a respected source of authority, to a certain extent. One of the key critiques of Al-Azhar and of the official Islam in Egypt is that too often they put out fatwas to support the state's interest.

AMOS: Fatwas are religious rulings issued by Al-Azhar scholars that should carry moral weight across the Muslim world. But in Egypt, Al-Azhar's top clerics are appointed by the government. For newspaper publisher Hisham Kassem, a democracy activist in Cairo, ties to an autocratic regime has weakened the institution's authority.

Mr. HISHAM KASSEM (Newspaper Publisher; Democracy Activist, Cairo): I look upon Al-Azhar with regret. Al-Azhar at some point was like a beacon for scholars — some of the most impressive scholars, some of the most enlightened. All I can do is hope that, you know, to see it one day again as a place where some progressive Islamic thought will come out of. That's about it.

AMOS: Egyptians will focus on another university this week - the one across the Nile, where a major cleanup is underway. Cairo University is a younger institution, a landmark for liberal education and often the site for pro-democracy protests. The university has postponed exams this week - a good indication that Cairo University will be the setting for the president's historic address.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Cairo.

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