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In Mideast, speech greeted with skepticism

An Egyptian woman watches President Obama’s policy address yesterday while outside a shop selling televisions in Cairo. An Egyptian woman watches President Obama’s policy address yesterday while outside a shop selling televisions in Cairo. (Amr Nabil/Associated Press)
By Ernesto Londono and Liz Sly
Washington Post / May 20, 2011

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CAIRO — President Obama’s vow that the United States will “stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights’’ in the Middle East was received with a mix of apathy and skepticism by people in the region who watched the speech last night.

Some said they saw little news or any discernible shift in policy from an administration that has struggled to formulate a coherent response to the wave of popular uprisings roiling the region this spring.

“My hope was for an unqualified apology’’ for Obama’s perceived support of dictators, said Hossam Bahgat, a Cairo human rights activist who was among a handful of people who got up from his table to watch the speech at a popular downtown cafe. “And I thought only Obama could do that.’’

Bahgat said he was expecting stronger words from a president who delivered a speech at Cairo University two years ago that left many in the Middle East feeling that the United States was backing away from its commitment to support democratic reform in the region.

“The overwhelming sense was one of deja vu,’’ Bahgat said. “I kept waiting for Cairo II, but all I heard was Cairo I.’’

Obama used the word “democracy,’’ or variants of it, 23 times in yesterday’s speech — giving the issue far more prominence than he did in the June 2009 address, in which he used the word six times.

But Egyptian historian Khaled Fahmy said he was underwhelmed by the president’s words yesterday and remained unconvinced that the speech represented a strong endorsement of democracy.

“Despite all the talk about ‘Let’s put US values before US interest,’ it’s been US interests that have been driving US policy,’’ in recent months, said Fahmy, who chairs the history department of the American University in Cairo.

On the streets of Khan elKhalili, a historic market in the central Islamic Cairo district, a few people stopped in front of TV sets tuned to the Egyptian channel Al Masriya, which broadcast the president’s speech.

One man, an accountant, murmured that Islam and its holy book, the Koran, do not sponsor violence.

“Religion of peace,’’ he said, before walking away.

Obama’s strong words on Bahrain, a US ally that has brutally crushed its democracy movement, were welcomed by activists. His call to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to reform or step aside marked the first time Obama has spoken out against the Syrian regime, two months into an uprising in which Syrian troops have killed more than 900 people.

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