President Obama’s tour of the Middle East is intended to set the groundwork for a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict and improve the image of the United States in the Muslim world. On Thursday, he is scheduled to give his first speech in Cairo. Here are seven views from the region about what he should say.
1.- Voter Recall.
By Ahmen al-Omran
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
In early March 2005, I walked proudly into Al Hedaya Elementary School to cast a vote for the first time in my life. Saudi Arabia was holding its first national election, with voters selecting municipal councilmen. But since then, little democratic progress has been made. The government decided to delay elections for municipal councils that were scheduled to be held this year. Members of the Shura Council, the body that serves as a Parliament, are still appointed by the king, despite repeated calls to elect them.
When President Obama speaks to the Muslim world, he will doubtless try to reassure us that America is not at war with Islam. But if he directs his words exclusively to the people — and not to the kings and rulers — he will be making a mistake.
The masses will not listen to Mr. Obama unless he also addresses the leaders who deny us basic rights. He must signal to them his intention to change the longstanding policy of turning a blind eye to the undemocratic practices of America’s Arab allies. We don’t need any more nice words. Our government likes to talk about reform, but the glacial pace of change leaves young people like myself hopeless and frustrated. My friends and I always talk about leaving the country. We want to live in a place where we can be ourselves.
I still keep the paper from my first (and so far the last) elections with the word “Voted” stamped in blue ink on it. That ink has started to fade, just like my hopes for change.
Ahmen al-Omran is a blogger.
2.- No Meddling.
By Omayma Abdel-Latif
What could Barack Obama tell the Muslim world tomorrow that we would be happy to hear? He could tell us that he’s going to stay out of our elections.
Around two weeks ago, amid the campaigning for the June 7 parliamentary elections here , the administration made a huge blunder by dispatching Vice President Joseph Biden, the most senior United States official to visit Lebanon in more than 25 years.
Mr. Biden’s decision to meet with the leaders of the ruling coalition, a Western-backed alliance known as the March 14th group, only bolstered charges by the opposition, a coalition of groups including Hezbollah and the Christian Free Patriotic Movement, that Washington was meddling. Mr. Biden then said that American aid to Lebanon would depend on the composition and policies of the new government.
American efforts to isolate the opposition, which could very well win on Sunday, are destined to fail. Many here ask why America respects Israel’s election — which resulted in a right-wing government — and not their own. They also ask why Washington opposes interference in Lebanese affairs when it comes from Syria or Iran, but seems comfortable doing its own meddling.
To restore America’s credibility in the Muslim world, Mr. Obama should promise that come election time, he will respect the will of voters, even if he does not like the results.
Omayma Abdel-Latif is a journalist.
3.- Rigged to Lose.
By Ayman Noor
Two weeks ago, as security was being stepped up in preparation for Barack Obama’s visit, a thug sprayed flames into my face using an aerosol spray can. No arrests have been made.
Torching the opposition is a popular tactic. Last year the headquarters of my political party in central Cairo was burned down, and in 2006 my constituency office met a similar fate.
Egyptians have realized that their political participation makes little or no difference. No matter how they vote, the ruling party always seems to win. We are thus alarmed by signals that the Obama’s administration’s support for democracy may have waned. This year, the United States has significantly reduced financing for democracy support in Egypt.
We don’t expect Mr. Obama to bring progress to Egypt. But we expect him to demand freedom for all and to restate his conviction that oppressive regimes march on the wrong side of history.
Ayman Noor is a candidate for the Egyptian presidency in 2005.
4.- Right Time, Wrong Place.
By Hossam el-Hamalawy
The bridge I take to work in central Cairo was painted overnight. On the roads, colored concrete blocks were installed in turns where car accidents happen daily. Main streets in the neighboring city of Giza are suddenly blossoming with flowers. Street lamps are polished, and they are actually working. This could mean only one thing: our country is receiving an “important” foreign visitor.
President Obama should not have decided to come to Egypt. The visit is a clear endorsement of President Hosni Mubarak, the ailing 81-year-old dictator who has ruled with martial law, secret police and torture chambers. No words that Mr. Obama will say can change this perception that Americans are supporting a dictator with their more than $1 billion in annual aid.
The Western press is clearly excited about Mr. Obama’s “significant” choice of Egypt, and his destination, Cairo University, which the news media seem to consider a symbol of enlightenment, secularism and freedom.
The truth is that for years, Cairo University students have been demonstrating against the rising cost of education, demanding the university subsidize expensive text books, only to be rebuked by the authorities, who claim no funds are available. Yet the university somehow managed to find the money to polish up the building dome that will shine above Mr. Obama’s head when he delivers his address.
As for the other host of the president’s visit, Al Azhar University, one of its students, Kareem Amer, is languishing in prison after university officials reported his “infidel, un-Islamic” views to the government, earning him a four-year sentence in 2007. In advance of the visit, Egyptian security forces have rounded up hundreds of foreign students at Al Azhar.
We do want allies in the West, but not from inside the White House. Our real allies are the human rights groups and unions that will pressure the Obama administration to sever all ties to the Mubarak dictatorship. Their visits to Egypt are more meaningful, even if unlike Mr. Obama, they do not get a lavish reception.
Hossam el-Hamalawy is a journalist and blogger.
5.- Mutual Undesrstanding.
By Shahan Mufti
When President Obama addresses the Muslim world his words will be best understood by the people of Pakistan — literally, that is, because this is one of the largest English-speaking countries in the world. And today, with Pakistan being torn apart in a battle between the ideas of Western democracy and Islamic law, its people could use a few encouraging words from the American president, in the language the two nations share.
Pakistan once showed us a synthesis, not a clash, of Islamic and Western civilizations. In 1973, the country produced a constitution that fused a parliamentary system of pluralistic democracy with Islamic principles of law and governance.
But since 9/11, Pakistan’s Constitution has turned on itself, with Shariah and Western law in conflict rather than cooperation. In the past few years, I have witnessed how a battle with a ragtag militia that claims to defend Islamic law against secularism has killed thousands, forced millions of people from their homes and plunged the country into civil war.
I’ve also witnessed so many Pakistanis, the college students, the urban middle class and, yes, those Islamists who carry the germs of pluralism still trying hard to make the country’s constitutional idea — an Islamic democracy — work.
President Obama should speak to those Pakistanis who need so badly to hear that this constitutional experiment is worth a fresh try, even in these testing times; that the Islamic legal tradition is compatible with Western models of democracy; that Islamic and Western conceptions of justice and freedom still might meld in the grand Pakistani experiment.
It’s worth a shot. And it might be the best one we have — if for no other reason than the bond of a common language.
Shahan Mufti is a correspondent for the Web site GlobalPost.
6.- Promises Kept.
By Abduljalil Alsingace
When President Obama addresses the Muslim world tomorrow I have one main request: Be careful when you use the words “change” “dream” and “democracy.” Those things don’t come so easily to us.
When George W. Bush stopped by Bahrain last year, I tried to give him a petition with more than 80,000 signatures stating that Bahrain is not a beacon of democracy, as he and his secretary of state seemed to believe. The American Embassy here promised to pass the petition to the White House, but its fate remains unclear. This petition calls for our right to draft a democratic constitution.
Those who seek “change” here pay dearly. I was arrested at dawn last January, held in solitary confinement and accused of trying to overthrow the kingdom’s regime. After international and local pressure I was released and pardoned, but my case is still technically suspended. My two blogs and Facebook posts are blocked and people in Bahrain do not have direct access to them.
It would be good if Mr. Obama vowed to support democracy and human rights. But he should talk about these ideals only if he is willing to help us fulfill them.
Abduljalil Alsingace is an associate professor of engineering at the University of Bahrain.
7.- A Poverty Plan.
By Abdul Kareem al-Eryani
For President Obama’s speech to be effective, it has to be realistic. He has to talk about how the United States has failed to hold up its end of the bargain with my country, and others in the Islamic world. We have helped Washington combat extremism but the United States has not done enough to help us fight poverty, the twin brother of terrorism.
With our oil revenues declining, Yemen has a poverty rate of 40 percent and an unemployment rate of 35 percent. This creates the danger that our young will see joining Al Qaeda as a good job opportunity. Mr. Obama must address the question of poverty. It could one day help him, to paraphrase George W. Bush, avoid firing a $100,000 missile at a $700 tent.
Abdul Kareem al-Eryani is the former prime minister of Yemen.