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MIDDLE EAST: Cautious hope that Obama would bring peace to the region

January 21, 2009 |  3:29 am

Lebanonobama

Arab media welcomed the inauguration of President Obama on Tuesday. But they cautioned that Arabs should not raise hopes too high that Obama would bring peace to the region, at least not before his new administration is tested on the ground.

The official start of Obama’s presidency takes place while the Arab world continues to boil over the Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip, which ended with a shaky cease-fire this week and left more than 1,300 Palestinians dead.

The Arab satellite news channel Al Jazeera said in one of its reports this morning that Obama’s call for a new phase of relationships with the Muslim world based on “mutual interests” was a “positive message that inspires hope.”

The report noted, however, that his mention of the Muslim world was “swift” and might not denote Obama’s real intentions, which could be revealed only with time. 

Obama’s inauguration trumped the news from Gaza on the satellite channel, which has dedicated its entire air time to the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis in the last few weeks.

The front pages of many Arab newspapers today were covered with photos of Obama taking the oath of office.

“Barack Hussein Obama president ... for America’s reconciliation with itself and the world,” “Obama extends his hand to the Muslim world,” and “A new American dawn ... Bush is over and Obama started,” were some of the headlines of Arab dailies.

Arab commentators in newspapers and websites urged Obama to play an active role in bringing peace to the Middle East.

An op-ed article in the Saudi-owned newspaper Al Hayat said “it is time for the Western world led by the new U.S. president to pressure Israel to remove colonies and abandon its policy of occupation and oppression of the Palestinians.”

The piece, which was published today, said:

“Those scrutinizing U.S. politics can only note ... that Obama’s administration cannot change its fundamental alliance with Israel but there is hope that [his] intelligence and political shrewdness would bring about a solution to the Palestinian cause which has been fueling hatred and violence towards the West among Arab populations.”

The Egyptian opposition daily Al Wafd reported today that 75% of Egyptians want Obama to impose peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The newspaper said the figure came from a recent poll. 

During the conflict in Gaza, Obama was criticized in the Arab world for his “silence.” But recent news that the new president would appoint former Sen. George J. Mitchell, who played an important role in the peace process in Northern Ireland, was met with hope in the region.

The Arab news channel Al Arabiya said in one of its reports today that the appointment of Mitchell shows that the Middle East will be a “priority” on Obama's foreign agenda and that it denotes a more “balanced” approach to the region.

With his Lebanese roots, Mitchell could symbolically be regarded as someone with ties to the Arab world.

Akhbarbush_2For several Arab publications, the focus was more on the end of the Bush presidency, an era often described as disastrous for the Arab world and for relations between the West and Islam. George W. Bush’s legacy in the region is widely associated with the violence in Iraq, human rights violations at the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo prisons and Israeli offensives in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. 

The Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar, right, published a huge front-page photo of Bush waving goodbye as he boards a helicopter after the inauguration ceremony, with the headline, “The Last Emperor.” 

The caption reads, “Georges Bush officially dismissed from the White House, leaving behind catastrophes in various parts of the world and destabilizing the foundations of America itself.”

The website of Hezbollah’s TV, Al Manar, said that Obama's inaugural speech carried signs of change:

“Ending an era of U.S. presidency filled with violations, occupations and aggressions against the Arab and Muslim world ... Bush left and Obama replaced him.... The world is looking for marks of change in his foreign policy.”

Some observers in the Arab press noted that Obama’s mission in the Middle East will be highly challenging.

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In one caricature, above, Obama was depicted walking toward the presidential seat placed precariously on the top of a globe with black fumes billowing from various parts. The cartoon was published in today’s edition of the Lebanese newspaper Annahar.

-- Raed Rafei in Beirut

Photo: The inauguration of President Obama dominated the news in the Beirut. For some Arab newspapers, however, the focus was more on the end of the Bush presidency. Credit: Hussein Malla / Associated Press

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