Obama heads to Egypt

June 4, 2009 12:00 am

, CAIRO, Jun 4 – US President Barack Obama headed for Egypt on Thursday to make a momentous multimedia address to the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims, seeking to heal a wide breach between America and Islam.

Obama left Saudi Arabia, where he held intense talks on Middle East peacemaking, Iran and energy issues with King Abdullah, for Cairo, the venue for the long-awaited speech he vowed to give on the 2008 campaign trail.

Police clamped tight security on the Egyptian capital on Thursday: the road from the airport likely to be taken by Obama’s motorcade was swamped with plain clothes and uniformed security officers.

Obama, also due to hold his first talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and to tour the pyramids, was seeking to start a complete overhaul of the relationship between the United States and Islamic faithful.

"There has been a breach, an undeniable breach between America and the Islamic world," said David Axelrod, Obama’s top political advisor said in Saudi Arabia.

"And that breach has been years in the making, it is not going to be reversed with one speech. It is not going to be reversed perhaps, in one administration.

"But the president is a strong believer, in open, honest dialogue."

At Cairo University, Obama was to deploy his ultra-modern new media machine to push the speech on social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, aiming to take the message viral, and maximise its impact.

The State Department website offered listeners the chance to register for text messages from the speech in Arabic, Persian, Urdu and English and Whitehouse.gov will stream it live.

The US image in the Islamic world has been sullied by the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, Guantanamo Bay, the stalled peace process and the Iraq war.

Obama must also address those Americans, still stung by the September 11 attacks in 2001, who view the religion through the prism of extremism.

Yet critics warn Obama’s hopes may founder, given that policies like staunch US backing of Israel that make the United States unpopular will not be changed.

Others question whether his trademark soaring rhetoric will conceal undercooked policies towards a region in tumult and human rights groups said Obama undercut his message by speaking in Egypt where critics accuse Mubarak of repression.

The shadow of extremism also loomed: as soon as Obama arrived in Saudi Arabia Wednesday, he was greeted by threats from Osama bin Laden, but the Al-Qaeda leader’s new tape was dismissed by the White House as a futile bid to steal the president’s moment.

Obama also faces a tough sell in Egypt for his call for reconciliation.

A new poll by US-based WorldPublicOpinion.org found 67 percent of Egyptians believe the United States plays a negative role in the world and 76 percent believe Washington is out to weaken and divide the Islamic world.

Obama promised to address a major Islamic forum during his 2008 campaign, and expectations have mounted ever since, especially across the region where he is more popular than the nation he leads, polls show.

But hopes Obama will outline a major new plan to end the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict will likely be dashed.

The president will interweave his own story and personal ties to Islam with US foreign policy aspirations and the perilous state of a region frequently tipped into war.

Barack Hussein Obama, a Christian, has an Islamic family lineage in Kenya, and spent several years as a young boy growing up in Indonesia.

Aides said Obama would describe the divides and opportunities facing Islam and America, including US efforts to confront extremism, the Afghan and Pakistan war, Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He was expected to mention Iran’s nuclear drive and will outline initiatives on healthcare, education and investment in the Muslim world.

Obama pushed for a new dialogue with Islam on taking office in January, vowing to rev up Middle East peace moves.

He arrived in the Middle East after sparring publicly with new Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over West Bank settlements, an issue he sees as an impediment to resumed peace talks.

Aides said Obama had thrown himself into the speech, consulted Muslim Americans widely on its content, and was tinkering with the final draft "down to the wire" Wednesday night.


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