Tears and hard truths in Cairo
By S. Abdallah Schleifer in Cairo
It was at Cairo University’s Festival Hall that the great diva of Egyptian song, Umm Kalthoum, held her greatest concert triumphs in the 1950s and 1960s.
In the hall with a massive beige dome that made it look like an elegant concert hall or even opera house, she moved educated, influential Egyptian men and women to tears and ecstasy - a joy that has not been felt in this crowded and often chaotic city for years.
Barack Obama entered from the far right of the stage and the audience of a few thousand of Egypt’s great and good rose almost as one body.
Ministers of state, Coptic bishops and Muslim imams, senior Egyptian journalists - supporters of the regime and its critics - successful businessmen and leading academics, along with a large contingent of carefully chosen students from Cairo University and the American University of Cairo, applauded and waved back to the US president as he strode with an athlete’s grace to centre stage.
An Umm Kalthoum song could go on and on without losing its intensity for more than an hour, and Obama sustained the rapt attention of his audience - most relying on simultaneous translation and the earnestness of his body language, his lean, appealing physical presence - for nearly as long.
One minute into his speech he won nearly every heart and mind in the great hall, announcing his pride to be carrying “the goodwill of the American people, and a greeting of peace Muslim communities use in my country: asalaamu alaikum.
The audience rose to its feet and I was not the only one in that vast hall with tears in my eyes.
I never imagined, as an American and a Muslim, that I would ever hear an American president invoke the blessing of Islam or to go on to quote from the Quran, as he would do several times with great relevance.
Or to refer to Muhammad as “the Prophet upon whom be peace”.
But this extraordinary event was more than superb pacing and performance, more than the soaring, almost classic oratory Obama is famous for and that translates so well into modern literary Arabic.
It was more than soothing and conciliatory words for a predominantly Arab audience here in the Festival Hall, or the millions who watched and listened at home and the office, at universities and cafes courtesy of a dozen live Arab satellite feeds.
A vast Arab audience nursing the grievances of decades sharpened by the blows of the past eight years that preceded Obama’s presidency – the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the collapse of the Arab-Israeli peace process, the brutality of the siege and war on Gaza that cry out for justice and conciliation.
Obama vowed that he was in Cairo “to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world”, a new beginning based on respect – a word that figured significantly in this speech - as well as “mutual interests and shared values”.
But it quickly became clear that he was basing that new beginning on acknowledging realities and speaking hard truths – to Americans and to Israelis as well as to Arabs and Muslims.
He went well beyond the at-best well-meaning but almost meaningless platitudes about Islam as the religion of peace, to call his distant American audience’s attention to Western civilisation’s debt to Islam, “that carried the light of learning through so many centuries paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and enlightenment”.
He recalled a Muslim civilisation that was based on innovation, science, mathematics, printing, medicine, the fine arts, and in general, religious tolerance and racial equality.
But for his audience here and throughout the Arab world, he insisted that the impulse behind the creation of the state of Israel was a tragic history that could not be denied, alluding to the persecution of the Jewish people for centuries, culminating in an unprecedented Holocaust.
And he denounced Holocaust denial just as he denounced Israeli indifference to the suffering and the hardships of the Palestinians and the daily humiliations of occupation.
Finally, hard talk that his audience was ready to meditate upon.
Perhaps it is Obama’s deep reading in philosophy that led him to seek synthesis of apparent tension and conflict.
Even in his opening words, he honoured his official hosts - Al Azhar, the citadel of Sunni orthodoxy, and the University of Cairo, the launching pad in the 1920s and 1930s for secular education - as two remarkable institutions “that represent harmony between tradition and progress”.
Obama differentiated between the invasion of Iraq, which he had opposed, and the war in Afghanistan which he defined as a war of necessity, and repeated his pledge to pull out all US combat units from Iraqi cities by next month, and all troops by 2012.
He continually stressed the importance of broad alliance and international support that the US had when, in the wake of 9/11, it went into Afghanistan in pursuit of al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
But he engaged rather than denounce those in the Muslim world who doubted America’s intentions, in effect renouncing that overbearing theme of his predecessor that “whoever is not with me is against me”.
So when Obama condemned al-Qaeda for killing innocent men, women and children, it was not just American victims of 9/11 but the murder “of people of different faiths – but more than any other, they have killed Muslims”.
He acknowledged that in response to the trauma of 9/11 America had in some cases acted contrary to its best traditions and ideals and he spoke of “concrete actions to change course” by unequivocally prohibiting the use of torture and ordering the Guantanamo prison to be closed by early next year, drawing significant applause.
This was also a moment for giving assurances.
Obama insisted that the US sought no military bases in Afghanistan and he acknowledged that military power alone would not solve the problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Rather, he was committed to spending many billions of dollars partnering both countries to build schools, hospitals, roads, businesses and to help the many displaced by war.
Obama was clearly responding to those supporters newly turned into critics who claimed he had been co-opted by the lure of a military solution in Afghanistan and by extension, in Pakistan.
The range of the US president’s speech was broad, reaffirming his commitment to human rights, democracy and women’s rights, but also stressing the importance of development, job creation and extending education, particularly to women, that is problematic for much of the Muslim world.
As usual he sought the middle ground, saying that America has no business imposing its own system on different societies, but he insisted on basic human rights - the rule of law, freedom of expression, freedom to practise one’s religion, equal justice, a voice in government that is free of corruption.
Typical of his instinct for ethical realism, however, instead of threatening or denouncing his ultimate host - the Egyptian government - or any other state in the region practising political repression, he said governments respecting those universal rights would enjoy more stability, security and prosperity.
Along with the hard truths there were some very significant, if subtle, messages.
An idea circulated by Israeli official circles and Americans enthralled by the Jewish state, that Obama was in the Middle East to put together a Sunni Arab-Israeli alliance to isolate and combat Shia Iran, was nowhere to be found in his speech.
Nor did Iran occupy an equal amount of concern or time with the Afghan-Pakistani issue, the Iraqi war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But slipped into a most unconfrontational discussion of American-Iranian relations that included an acknowledgment of America’s role in overthrowing a legitimately elected nationalist government in Iran during the Cold War years, Obama reaffirmed an early election campaign commitment, too controversial at the time for him to pursue, that the US government was ready to talk with the Iranian leadership without any preconditions.
Even more significant was his acknowledgment that Hamas enjoyed popular support among Palestinians and it was in this context that he made the usual call for Hamas to renounce violence, recognise past agreements between the Palestinians and Israel, as well as recognise Israel’s right to exist.
Suddenly he was advising Hamas, not denouncing it, to accept the responsibility of governing. Perhaps historians will remember this speech as the moment America’s engagement with Hamas began.
S Abdallah Schleifer is Distinguished Professor of Journalism at the American University in Cairo and Adjunct Scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington DC.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.
Source: Al Jazeera