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EGYPT: How Obama's speech won hearts

June 7, 2009 |  9:34 am


Even days after Barack Obama's speech, Egyptians are still captivated by the American president. While some Islamists and opposition figures are dissecting and criticizing the address, many Muslims are waiting to see what the future holds, and if Obama will implement his vision into action. The general feeling is that people's hearts were won over by Obama's rhetoric and flair.


The emotional connection between Arabs, in general, and Egyptians, in particular, with the United States has been a pull-and-push relationship over the last 60 years. The administration of George W. Bush culminated in years of ill will, forcing many Arabs to at least pretend to despise the world's most powerful country. So how did Obama's 55-minute speech succeed in nearly wiping away animosity among moderate Muslims?


Talking to politicians, analysts, religious figures and citizens, both before and after the speech, I could sense that Obama has become an accepted figure among most Egyptians. A generation of his family were Muslims, he's the first African American to lead the United States, and some of his views about peace in the Middle East -- which contradict his predecessor's -- have created a good feeling toward him.


Then he chose Cairo as his venue to address the Muslim world, which was considered by many as a massive gesture of goodwill. The previously mentioned reasons made Egyptians simply love Obama's speech before he even started it, commencing his words with "assalamu alaikum" (or "peace be upon you"). Obama's references to passages from the Koran to underline his views was more than enough for some to become infatuated with him straightaway.


It is clear that most Egyptians were waiting for any American gesture, and that hope came in the shape of Obama and his words. People here have a very strong bond with the United States as a country and a culture, especially those born in the 1950s and '60s, who grew up to watching American movies and TV and listening to its pop songs. They were struck by the American dream and many fled Egypt to follow this dream in the U.S.


Younger generations imitate Americans, even in the way they speak English. Politically, many remain suspicious of American foreign policy, but culturally, millions of Egyptians are enamored by America, and by its president. Obama reached out and they have reached back.


--Amro Hassan in Cairo


Photo: President Obama salutes the crowd at Cairo University. Credit: Associated Press