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Obama's Middle East Speech: The View from a Cafe in Cairo

Watching Obama’s speech as a foreigner in Egypt, I fear that his professed support for Arab activists is an empty promise.

Obama's Middle East speech, a sequel of sorts to his iconic Cairo speech of 2009, was less-than-anticipated here in Cairo. As I sat in my house waiting for Obama to step up to the podium, a journalist friend reporting from a pedestrian, cafe-laden area of downtown Cairo texted me, noting that the coffee-drinking youth around her didn’t seem to care all that much.

During the speech, I angrily tweeted that I was so livid I was going to turn off Al-Jazeera. Maybe it was the gin speaking. Because by the time Obama was done speaking, I had resigned myself to a more general apathy. Over beers at a downtown bar with my best friend a few hours later, I mentioned that I was trying to write about Obama’s speech. “Who cares?” asked my friend, a news editor at an English-language daily. “Literally no one gives a shit.”

Post-uprising Cairo is funny in this way. Prior to January 25th, Obama was a sign of good things to come in a post-Bush world. (No doubt his Cairo speech played into this.) I had become accustomed to smiling and nodding when shopkeepers and restaurateurs shouted “Obama!” with a thumbs up, knowing full well that in Mubarak’s Egypt, none of the privileges of being a U.S. aid recipient would be trickling down to the hard-working men and women who needed and deserved them.

In post-Jan. 25 Egypt, things are different, and can’t simply be discounted as anti-foreigner backlash prescribed by the Mubarak regime during the uprising. Between the visual of watching a U.S. Embassy vehicle mow down protesters on Qasr el Aini Street on Jan. 28 and Hillary Clinton’s flip-floppy speeches expressing an ardent desire for stability, the local struggle to take down Hosni Mubarak has led to a realization of Egyptian self-determination that remains fairly skeptical of U.S. promises to forgive its $1 billion debt. Conversations with the owner of my favorite café reflect the same sentiments: “It’s the same speech as two years ago,” he said. “He’s trying to find a balance between finance and peace with Israel, and it’s a huge mistake.” Indeed, Obama's promise to bring in the World Bank and IMF is one that most people, myself included, are not pleased about. So much of the corruption under the Mubarak regime was misuse of foreign aid.

While some Egyptian activists were glued to Al-Jazeera’s live stream of Obama’s speech (for some snippy commentary, follow young street artist and activist Ganzeer on Twitter), quite a few were not. The simple fact is that at this point, happenings on the ground require more urgent attention. There is an ongoing sit-in by Egyptian Coptic Christians in the wake of sectarian violence, and a recent protest at the Israeli embassy on Palestinian Nakba Day resulted in the unreasonable detention (and, fortunately, subsequent release) of several activists by the military. In the interim, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, reluctant tyrant that it is, has had multiple instances of severe, Mubarak-era violations of human rights.

I will say that I felt slightly hopeful when Obama stated, “We must also build on our efforts to broaden our engagement beyond elites, so that we reach the people who will shape the future—particularly young people.” So much of the American coverage of the Egyptian uprising, be it in Time or on The Daily Show, has been devoted to specific activists who are educated English speakers. (Salma Said, a long-time activist with a penchant for excellent call-outs, took The Guardian to task on Twitter for its focus on mainly young, English-speaking men in one feature.) In a broader sense, the Arab Spring has truly increased regionalized loyalty, leading to widespread disappointment in Obama’s expressions of support for Israel in yesterday's speech. Furthermore, Obama’s lukewarm stance on Bahrain, even in the wake of its brutal suppression of protesters, did not go unnoticed. Egyptians maintain an intense solidarity with the protesters still struggling for self-determination in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, and Palestine—a sort of 21st-Century reimagining of pan-Arab ideology.

Shopkeepers aren’t smiling and shouting, “Obama, Obama!” anymore when they ask where I’m from. Instead, I’m regarded with an attitude of cautious friendliness that is not unjustified. “We really trusted Obama,” says the café owner. “But not anymore.” I have to nod and express my agreement with this sentiment. Pre-uprising, I was always racked with a sense of guilt when people shouted, “America, good!” because it was so symbolic of the global disparity between the West and the rest. Post-uprising, I fear that Obama’s professed support for Arab self-determination is an empty promise, even as an Egyptian self-consciousness is being rediscovered.

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