Egyptians Look For More Than Rhetoric From Obama Cairo, the Egyptian capital, is gearing up for President Obama's visit and his much-anticipated address Thursday to the Muslim world. If Obama wants to win over Muslims, he will have to win over Egyptians first. But many have a wait-and-see attitude toward the U.S. leader's outreach.
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Egyptians Look For More Than Rhetoric From Obama

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Egyptians Look For More Than Rhetoric From Obama

Egyptians Look For More Than Rhetoric From Obama

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Cairo is gearing up for President Obama's visit and tomorrow's address to Arabs and Muslims all over the world. In our interview earlier this week, Mr. Obama told us his goals for the speech are to project American ideals of democracy, rule of law, freedom of speech and freedom of religion. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Cairo on what Egyptians are hoping to hear from the president.

DEBORAH AMOS: Across this sprawling Arab capital, cleanup crews are sweeping the streets, painting the light posts, even hosing down dusty traffic lights.

(Soundbite of street sweeping)

AMOS: Cairo University, the venue for the speech, is preparing for the international spotlight too. But Mohmen Hafez, a professor of German literature here, has another cleanup in mind. Here is what she'll be listening for when President Barack Obama speaks.

Professor Mohmen Hafez (German literature, Cairo University): So we don't know exactly if he's going to do something really about the mess here — the mess, yes, in the Middle East.

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

Mr. HISHAM KASSEM: There are high hopes that he will say the right things and make a clear commitment to civil liberties.

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

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

AMOS: Kassem along with other members of Egypt's secular opposition will attend the speech at Cairo University. Also on the guest list, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group with broad popular support. Hafez Maraji, the host of "Eye on America," a weekly Arabic television program, will be broadcasting the speech to a wider regional audience.

Mr. HAFEZ MARAJI (Host of "Eye on America"): What do we have now and (unintelligible)?

AMOS: They're fixing this (unintelligible)

AMOS: There will be thousands of television hours devoted to parsing Mr. 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.

Mr. 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.

AMOS: But a change in tone won't be enough, he 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 buildup in Afghanistan, the draw-down in Iraq? What about talks with Iran? Prisoner abuse at Guantanamo? These are the issues that count the most, says Maraji.

Mr. MARAJI: It is very dangerous to raise expectations of people, and then when you don't deliver, they'll have frustration. That's what I'm worried about.

AMOS: The president is expected to deliver a call for new and ambitious regional diplomacy. Egypt is a key player. As for democracy, President Obama has said America can't impose it with lectures or military means — a change in tactics that is welcome, says government spokesman Hossam Zaki.

Mr. HOSSAM ZAKI (Government Spokesman, Egypt): 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.

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

Mr. HOSSAM HAMALWAY (Journalist; Blogger; Democracy Advocate): I really do not have any, any ounce worth of hope, you know, that Obama is going to make any sort of change here in the region for our benefit.

AMOS: The president will have to convince the skeptics, especially among the young, says Hamalway. He says he's willing to listen carefully, as will many Egyptians, to how the president talks to their leaders and to them.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Cairo.

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