Why The Obama Administration Picked Cairo President Obama will try to reach out to the Muslim world this week through a speech in Cairo. Administration officials are highlighting Egypt's position as a strategic ally of the United States, but one analyst says the choice of location was more a process of elimination.
NPR logo

Why The Obama Administration Picked Cairo

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/104805321/104813697" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Why The Obama Administration Picked Cairo

Why The Obama Administration Picked Cairo

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/104805321/104813697" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Later this week, President Obama steps onto the campus of a university in Cairo, Egypt. He will deliver a speech aimed at the Muslim world.


He will deliver it in a country where President Hosni Muburak has held power for decades and opposition leaders are often jailed. In an interview yesterday, we asked the president if U.S. support for undemocratic governments will undermine his message. He responded that the U.S. will deal with all kinds of governments.

President BARACK OBAMA: The main thing for me to do is to project what our values are, what our ideals are, what we care most deeply about, and that is democracy, rule of law, freedom of speech, freedom of religion.

MONTAGNE: Many factors were considered in choosing Cairo for this speech. Here's NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN: If you listen to administration officials, Cairo was the logical choice. Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Denis McDonough addressed the issue in a conference call with reporters.

Mr. DENIS MCDONOUGH (Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications): Egypt is a longtime strategic ally of the United States. It's a key country in the Arab and Muslim world with a burgeoning younger population that the president looks very much forward to engaging.

KELEMEN: But analysts say there's no perfect place to give such a speech. President Obama could have chosen Indonesia, where he spent some of his childhood, or Turkey, where he visited recently.

Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says the administration, after a lively debate, decided to pick an Arab country.

Mr. JON ALTERMAN (Center for Strategic and International Studies): Arabs are a minority of Muslims, but they have a disproportionate voice in Muslim life and Muslim jurisprudence. There's a way in which Arab Islam travels in a way that Indonesian Islam doesn't. So I think they decided it has to be in an Arab city, and if you start thinking about Arab cities, there aren't a lot that leap off the page.

KELEMEN: Alterman thinks the choice of Egypt was mainly the result of the process of elimination. Morocco, while more democratic, is a bit peripheral, Jordan too small, and Saudi Arabia too conservative.

Mr. ALTERMAN: So you end up going to Cairo, which has been an influential Arab and Islamic city for centuries. Cairo helps you check boxes, but it creates other problems. Cairo creates the problem of what are you saying about human rights.

KELEMEN: Now, analysts say, President Obama will have to find some way to address this issue. Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says the choice of Cairo was a bold and challenging one for the U.S. and a welcome one for President Hosni Mubarak's government.

Ms. MICHELE DUNNE (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): They see it as a validation of their importance in the region. And they've been very concerned about that recently, especially with the rise of Iran to greater prominence in the region, Saudi Arabia, and even small Arab countries like Qatar have taken on a more prominent role in diplomacy.

And so Egypt is eager to try to recapture its status as the preeminent Arab power, and I think they see President Obama's choice as helping them to do that in some way.

KELEMEN: President Obama will be speaking from Cairo University, which Dunne says poses some practical challenges.

Ms. DUNNE: Cairo is a huge metropolis. The Cairo University campus is large, it's a heavily populated area of the city. Moving a presidential motorcade through there is going to be extremely difficult. And I'm sure they're going to have to make some very complicated arrangements to ensure President Obama's safety.

KELEMEN: Jon Alterman says that security was a factor in choosing Cairo University for the speech, which will be co-hosted by Al-Azhar University, an ancient seat of Islamic studies. President Obama has been promising this speech ever since the campaign, but while Alterman says many in the Arab world are hoping to hear clear policy decisions, administration officials say the speech will be more conceptual, aimed at redefining relations with the Arab and Muslim world.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.