CAIRO: Once again new US President Barack Obama mesmerizes Arab and Muslim populations around the world with a simple gesture, but one that speaks volumes.
Obama’s decision to give his first official interview to a foreign network, Al-Arabiya, earlier this week, at a time when the region is literally up in flames in the aftermath of Israel’s 22-day assault on Gaza, is a testament to his genuine commitment to affect real change in US policy regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as well as the attitude of the US vis-à-vis the region as a whole.
It’s difficult not to describe everything Obama does as “historic because every decision he has made since he took office has been nothing short of that.
On Al-Arabiya, he promised to start by listening, not dictating, as previous US administrations have done. At the same time, he warned against having unrealistic expectations, and highlighted the need for steady progress that begins now.
His reference to Saudi King Abdullah’s “courageous Arab Peace Initiative was particularly significant.
The initiative, which was announced during the Beirut Summit in 2002, then re-endorsed in the Arab League’s Riyadh Summit in 2007, demanded Israeli’s complete withdrawal from the occupied Arab territories, including the Syrian Golan Heights, to the June 4, 1967 line and the territories still occupied in southern Lebanon; attaining a just solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution No 194; accepting the establishment of an independent and sovereign Palestinian State on the Palestinian territories occupied since June 4, 1967 in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital.
In return the Arab states promised to consider the Arab-Israeli conflict over, to sign a peace agreement with Israel, achieve peace for all states in the region and to establish normal relations with Israel within the framework of this comprehensive peace.
Despite objections against this initiative from both sides, many analysts believe that this has been the most even-handed diplomatic move to date, and for Obama to evoke it in his first address to the Arab world inspires hope.
Obama also displayed a need to look at the region as a whole, saying that issues with Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Pakistan are all interrelated. In that context, he reiterated that the message he wishes to communicate to the Arab and Muslim world is that the US is ready to initiate new partnerships based on mutual respect and mutual interest and to make significant progress, while at the same time emphasizing that the US will continue to believe that Israeli security is paramount.
Obama’s discourse signaled a serious paradigm shift, since he addressed Israelis who are willing to achieve peace and make sacrifices if the time is appropriate and there is serious partnership from the other side, as he said.
And his message of hope and commitment to a just peace did not stop there. Although he avoided setting a time frame for these goals, Obama did stress that he will work towards seeing a Palestinian State that is “contiguous and allows freedom of movement and freedom of trade to improve people’s lives. Again, his grass-roots, slowly-but-surely approach prevails, which, at this point in history, proves that he is a man of staggering ambition who refuses to be shaken by terror groups like Al-Qaeda whose ideas Obama described as “bankrupt.
“You will be judged on what you build not on what you destroy, he said.
Obama also said that his job is to communicate that the US has a stake in the well being of the Muslim world and hence “the language we use has to be one of respect.
In all his travels throughout the Muslim world, he said, he understood that regardless of faith people have common hopes and dreams and that he must communicate to American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary men and women who simply want to live their lives and make better lives for their children.
“And to the Muslim world I say that Americans are not your enemies, he said.
As several commentators noted, it was remarkable for a US president to speak openly about his interaction with Muslim members of his own family in a bid to appeal to the moderates in the Arab and Muslim world and to isolate the extremists. To use the word “respect almost a dozen times in a 20-minute interview addressing an Arab/Muslim audience and to make his first call to a foreign leader to Abu Mazen, President of the Palestinian Authority, as Middle East Analyst Reza Aslan commented on CNN, shows that Obama is setting himself up as a bridge between the US and the Middle East
“This is more than just another tactical ploy on Obama’s part, said Aslan, “what he is doing here is a grand gesture.
Everything that Obama stands for is both uplifting and representative of the fundamental American ideals that have built a cultural and economic powerhouse out of a nation that did not even exist 250 years ago.
At the heart of these ideals is the principle of equal opportunity, which is tragically non-existent in Egypt, despite the 7,000-year-old civilization we are quick to boast about on every occasion.
Even when it comes to the simplest of issues, such as getting free admission tickets to a theater performance sponsored by the Ministry of Culture, nepotism, cronyism and corruption are so pervasive that only those who have direct contact with the minister’s office are able to access this public resource.
I refer here to the chaos and humiliation ordinary people are subjected to in order to attend the popular award-winning play “Ahwa Sada at the Artistic Creativity Center.
I’m almost 100 percent certain that Minister Farouk Hosni has no idea what is being done in his name, but I’d like to whisper in his ear that the lopsided ratio of 80 percent VIPs receiving prior invitations to the play (allegedly through his office), to 20 percent “ordinary people who are asked to queue up two whole hours before the show, is absolutely unfair.
To add insult to injury, despite the fact that all tickets have seat numbers, the “ordinary people are only allowed entry into the theater after all the faux-VIPs (who I believe should have paid for their tickets) have gone in first.
This, to me, was a microcosm of everything that is wrong with our country.
And if you think this incident has nothing to do with the symbolic significance of Obama to the repressed citizens of the third world, think again.
If the US did not enshrine the principle of equal opportunity in every nook and cranny of every state institution, the world would never have seen the emergence of a man from an ethnic minority – black Americans only represent 13.5 percent of the US population – come to power, when less than 60 years ago his grandfather would have been asked to go to the back of the bus.
In Egypt, you need to have connections with the minister’s office to get a free ticket to a public performance that is provided for free specifically to give open access to those who don’t usually have it, mostly for financial reasons. And I won’t even mention the endemic classism and discrimination obstructing access of the majority of Egyptians to the Foreign Service, the police academy, even faculty positions at public universities.
That’s the difference between “us and “them.
Rania Al Malky is the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.