CAIRO: US President Barack Obama made his long-awaited address to the Muslim world from the podium of Cairo University Thursday, triggering a standing ovation and chants of his name as he exited the grand hall.
The historic event was attended by an array of guests, including head of the Policies Secretariat of the ruling National Democratic Party Gamal Mubarak, Egyptian ministers, Muslim and Coptic clerics, representatives of diplomatic missions, and celebrities like comedian Adel Imam and Laila Elwi.
Before the speech he toured the Sultan Hassan Mosque and visited the Giza Pyramids after the speech. He flew to Germany at 6 pm.
In a speech which came in at just under an hour, Obama addressed a series of hot-button issues in the Muslim world including Iraq, Palestine, Iran, extremism and the negative stereotyping of Muslims.
Yet he began his speech by making clear that he came with the intent to achieve mutual reconciliation and step up cooperation.
“Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire . America is not – and never will be – at war with Islam. We will, however, relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security, he said.
The head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights Hafez Abu Saeda told Daily News Egypt, “I see it as a historic speech, which will cement ties between the strongest country in the world and the Islamic world. It also made the distinction between Islam and terrorism, a word which Obama steered clear of using.
Head of the Arab Socialist Party Waheed Al-Aqsari, however, was not so moved, telling Daily News Egypt, “Obama didn’t offer anything new, he came to improve America’s image in the Islamic world after the relationship deteriorated so severely during the Bush years.
Obama then went into some detail regarding issues which are at the heart of American-Islamic relations and what the American position was concerning them, as well as admitting to mistakes the US made there.
On Iraq he said, “Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq was a war of choice that provoked strong differences in my country and around the world . 9/11 was an enormous trauma to our country. The fear and anger that it provoked was understandable, but in some cases, it led us to act contrary to our ideals.
Obama also tackled the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, stressing America’s deep bond with Israel but also recognizing the plight of the Palestinian people.
“America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable, he said.
“On the other hand, Obama added, “it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. They endure the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable.
Obama said, “The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security. Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed . violence is a dead end.
“The United States, he continued, “does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.
Commenting on that, Deputy Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood Mohamed Habib said that Obama tried to please all the sides but was unequivocal in his bias to Israel.
Former Egyptian Ambassador to Israel Mohamed Bassiouny, however, disagreed. He told Daily News Egypt, “It was a balanced speech, and answered the questions we were wondering about. He supported the peace process and freezing settlement building.
“We consider his speech positive, he continued, “and we should encourage him. Arabs should be united in their stance and especially the Palestinians so that they can enter the negotiation process.
Al-Aqsari, however, decried the fact that Obama, mentioned the Holocaust but failed to even hint at the massacres of the Palestinians at the hands of the Israelis.
Obama had come under criticism from opposition groups for choosing Egypt as the venue for the speech, due to its poor human rights record and lack of democratic reform. Addressing this, Obama said that the US cannot impose its brand of democracy on any other nation by force.
“No system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other, he said, “but I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments – provided they govern with respect for all their people.
Human rights activist Abu Saeda responded to that by saying that, “Egypt lacks democracy, but if things proceed in this manner it could reinforce the democratic process. We have tried strong language and aid restrictions in the past eight years and this had made matters worse.
“We have seen in the build up to Obama’s visit, he added, “the release of Ayman Nour and the dropping of some charges against Saad Eddin Ibrahim. So maybe this is the way to improve things.
The US President also spoke of the rights of minorities – mentioning Egypt’s Coptic Christians by name – and the rights of women.
“Among some Muslims, there is a disturbing tendency to measure one s own faith by the rejection of another s. The richness of religious diversity must be upheld – whether it is for Maronites in Lebanon or the Copts in Egypt, he said.
Regarding women, he said, “I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality.
Obama also talked about Iran’s nuclear program and how he envisioned a Middle East, and a world, free of nuclear weapons.
The US President closed off his speech with a promise to cement economic ties between his country and “Muslim-majority nations.