Obama speaks before 3,000, addresses a billion


[Editor's note: GlobalPost will have reaction and analysis throughout the day to Obama's speech to the Muslim world. For more GlobalPost coverage, read about the view from Dubai, and from elsewhere in the world.]

CAIRO — By the time President Barack Obama arrived at Cairo University to deliver his much-anticipated address to the Muslim world, he had already accomplished much in the Arab world’s most populous city.

Obama visited with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. They focused on trying to break the impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, according to news reports. President Obama then headed to the Sultan Hassan Mosque with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for a tour.

Obama strolled the mosque in his socks, and Clinton wore a loose headscarf in deference to Muslim tradition.

Egyptians across Cairo crowded around televisions and radios to hear the president’s address, as various Arab TV stations dubbed his words in Arabic.

But it didn’t take any translation to understand some of his opening words, which were a simple gesture of respect.

“Assalaamu alaykum,” Obama said, wishing peace, in Arabic, to the 3,000 attending Egyptians.

In his speech, Obama made almost immediate mention of the discord between the West and the Muslim world, bringing up both European colonialism and Muslim extremism.

He then framed the purpose of his visit.

“I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition,” he said.

Obama also showed a new willingness to open up about his own history. During the presidential campaign, Obama sought to distance himself from his Islamic roots in an effort to combat rumors he was a Muslim. His middle name, Hussein, was often used as fodder for his opposition.

Since taking office, though, Obama has re-emphasized his past. In his Cairo speech, he mentioned that his father was Muslim, that he had lived in Indonesia, and that he had worked with Muslims in Chicago.

In the lead-up to Obama’s speech, many around Cairo were concerned that Obama would rely on rhetoric rather than offering specific strategies for dealing with a region in a deep state of crisis. Obama needed to offer a plan for action, many from across the Egyptian political spectrum said, for them to view his speech as a success.

Obama did take on some of the pressing regional issues in his address.

“Make no mistake,” Obama said, “we do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan. We seek no military bases there. It is agonizing for America to lose our young men and women. It is costly and politically difficult to continue this conflict. We would gladly bring every single one of our troops home if we could be confident that there were not violent extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can. But that is not yet the case.”

Many U.S. conservatives have criticized Obama’s trip, arguing that it would amount to an apology tour.

The president steered clear of any apologies, though he opened himself to criticism at home, telling the auditorium of Muslims that the war in Iraq was a “war of choice.”

Speaking in a country with a deep colonial history, Obama reminded the Muslim world that the U.S. sought no colonial role in the Middle East. In discussing both Iraq and Afghanistan, he asserted that the U.S. had no interest in keeping a military presence in either country.

On Iraq, he said, “We pursue no bases, and no claim on their territory or resources.”

Obama then made brief mention of his policy on torture and of his intention to shut down the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, drawing loud applause from the crowd.

In advance of his speech, some Egyptians noted that they hoped Obama would address the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Many hoped he would speak specifically to a plan for peace.

As is his style, Obama charted a middle course, noting a history of suffering for both Jews and Palestinians. And reiterating a call he has made several times since taking office, Obama called for a two-state solution to the crisis.

Though taking a tougher tone toward Israel than some of his predecessors, Obama seemed determined to criticize and cajole both sides equally, addressing Israelis and Palestinians alternately.

In addressing Israel, Obama continued to call on the Jewish state to halt the building of settlements in the West Bank.

“The United States 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,” he said.

For those hoping for specifics, though, Obama may have disappointed. In addressing a handful of crises, Obama offered little by way of a plan for action.

Obama gave his first TV interview as president to an Arab network, has addressed the Turkish Parliament and sent a video message to Iran. Political scholars and working-class Egyptians alike hoped Obama would move beyond gestures in his speech and offer concrete solutions.

In some opposition circles in Cairo, people criticized Obama for choosing Egypt to deliver his speech, arguing that it amounted to an endorsement of Mubarak’s anti-democratic regime.

In his speech, Obama chose not to criticize Mubarak directly, instead speaking in general terms about the need for all people to pursue democratic values.

“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,” he said.

“Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.”

In his more than 45-minute long address, Obama also touched on a number of other subjects, including nuclear weapons, women’s rights, religious tolerance and economic opportunity.

The speech served more to extend an open hand than to present a firm plan of action. Reaction to the speech will be varied, no doubt, representing the mosaic of political opinion in Egypt’s population.

The level of interest in this speech, though, has grown to a fever pitch in Cairo in recent days. For security reasons, the city is virtually shut down. Roads are quiet and businesses empty. Egyptians everywhere crowded into cafes and apartments to watch the address. While reaction here will play out over the coming days, interest in his speech will make sure that there will be plenty of it.

Following the address, Obama boarded Marine One for a brief flight to the Pyramids, where he’ll take a tour before departing Cairo this afternoon.