I wanted to write about it the moment I started to hear him speak, but life has an irritating habit of getting in the way. What is normal after such intereference by life, is that I shelve the idea. But this particular event is just too important to be lightly tossed aside in my "expired" folder.
The fact that a US President would be visiting a "Muslim Majority" Country before Israel, was in itself a huge departure in recent practice. There was speculation as to where he would speak from. Options ranged from Al Azhar Mosque (which I personally think would have been an excellent, yet impractical location) to Sharm el Sheikh. He settled on Cairo University.
The whole city of Cairo virtually came to a standstill on June 4th. Rumors abounded of 10,000+ snipers, 20,000 troops coming in on their own helicopters from the US and other such fantastic numbers were bandied about.
Passes to the event were carefully distributed by the American Embassy from what I gathered, to ensure an appropriate balance of profiles. 15 students from each major university were invited.
The Government declared a holiday for all its offices. A lot of Universities postponed exams to cope with this extra holiday. A number of private companies too decided to give employees the day off, fearing that they may be stuck in one of the road clearance drives. People who had parked their cars in certain areas along the route, were told to remove them the day before the President was due to arrive. (Now if we can only get similar celebrities to visit different parts of Cairo each day, we may be able to get those broken down heaps that masquerade as cars, that take up precious parking space to get towed away - How's that as a long term solution to Cairo's parking woes?)
But I digress. Coming back to the speech.
It was absolutely brilliant. There was no fault that an unvested interest could find in that speech except perhaps for him mis-pronouncing hijab and Al Azhar. But given the content and message, those are errors that can be easily overlooked.
The greatest strength of his speech was that he identified with his audience on a personal level. Compared to his predecessor whose speech writers made assume a superior and supercillious tone, Obama came across as "one of us". He drew attention to his Indonesian and Chicago life experiences amongst muslim communities.
He gave them praise where it was due, for their innovations in printing, algebra, architecture and then came to his main point. That he would fight negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they may appear. A statement that was greeted with loud applause, that almost died down with his following sentence "But the same principle should apply to Muslim stereotypes of America" This did not seem to be what the crowd wanted to hear. Until then, Obama had seemed to be a cheerleader for the Muslim world, but this statement showed that he wasn't going to unilaterally support the Muslim world. There was going to have to be some give and take.
Once the audience reconciled themselves to this idea, things improved again.
I will not get into the rest of the content of his speech, as it has been discussed ad nauseum on multiple fora.
It was a wonderful bit of speech writing to include references from the Torah, the Bible and the Quran. When he said "Jerusalem - is a place for all the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully", I had goosebumps and I know many Americans who have made Egypt their home, who were moved to tears by this sentence.
His body language was firm yet conveyed his openness to change. He came across as determined while engaging the public through eye contact and clear speech. Again, notable when compared with the last guy to hold his post.
He changed the terminology from the aggressive posturing of the previous government to one based on mutual understanding and dialogue. Instead of general nonsensical terms like "War on terror", he firmly stated that "America is not at War with Islam"
Another firm departure from previous policy was when he clearly stated "America does not presume to know what is best for everyone" If he can follow through on this and not have American Foreign policy and their idea of Democracy being stuffed down the throats of unwilling citizens of countries that aren't ready for the American idea of Democracy, it will go a long way in building bridges that had seemed burned and irrepairable a year ago.
The speech was transmitted live on Facebook and was texted as sms in English, Arabic, Farsi and Urdu. Thus upholding his campaign strategies of involving the younger generations by utilising media more familiar and accessible to them. It has also been uploaded onto Youtube.
The reaction to his speech by most locals that I know, has been "Let's wait and watch" "We want to see actions, not words" This guy is talking about change in policy, so maybe we can stop suspcecting the littlest sneeze. But to start trusting the Americans, we need to see concrete proof. We need to see steps being taken in the right direction. Words will not be enough.
It is undeniable that the US has a large role to play in World Politics. We can only hope and pray that instead of mindless wars and Nuclear arms races, we can at least have dialogue and hope for a future of peace.
In Obama's Words "All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time. The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart, or whether we commit ourselves to an effort – a sustained effort – to find common ground, to focus on the future we seek for our children, and to respect the dignity of all human beings"
Also Published on desicritics.org