Mideast echoes Obama's 'change' message, skeptically
CAIRO (Reuters) - The Middle East resonated on Wednesday to the yearning for change which drove Barack Obama's victory in the U.S. presidential election, but many predicted he would dash their hopes for a fresh start in Middle East policy.
"The region has many expectations. We hope (Obama) will help efforts to bring about permanent and just peace," said Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki.
Abdel Galil Mustafa, the coordinator of the Egyptian protest movement Kefaya, added: "Obama is a good choice, because he is after change in American policies, from which we have suffered much over the last several decades."
Leading Syrian journalist Thabet Salem said the Arab world rejoiced at Obama's victory. "Not because he won but because it meant that President George W. Bush, who is regarded as a bloodsucker, and his clique, were gone," he said.
The policies of Bush's outgoing administration have had a direct and often violent impact on the Middle East, especially in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, where antagonism toward Washington is widespread.
Bush invaded Iraq in 2003 in the face of overwhelming Arab opposition and paid less attention to the Arab-Israeli conflict than any U.S. president since Ronald Reagan.
He included Iran is his "axis of evil" and encouraged Israel's failed attempt in 2006 to crush the Shi'ite Muslim guerrilla movement Hezbollah in Lebanon. Many Muslims saw his "war on terror" as a covert crusade against Islam.
Obama now faces the challenge of repairing relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds while convincing Americans that he can also prevent a repetition of the 2001 attacks on U.S. soil.
Gholamali Haddadadel, a senior adviser to Iran's most powerful figure Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said: "Obama's election displays the failure of America's policies around the globe. Americans have to change their policies to rescue themselves from the quagmire created by Bush."
Ali Aghamohammadi, another close aide to Khamenei, said: "We are not fully optimistic but with a real change in American policy there will be a capacity to improve ties between the two countries. Of course the Zionist lobby in America will do its utmost to prevent the improvement of ties."
REPAIR THE DAMAGE
A mixture of hope and skepticism was the hallmark of Arab and Iranian popular reaction to the election of Obama, the first African-American president in U.S. history.
Hossam Bahgat, an Egyptian rights activist, said: "The campaign itself did a lot to repair the damage done to the image of the United States over the past eight years.
"So there is a strange sense of accomplishment, but also of course the nervousness of expecting big disappointments when it comes to our region," he told Reuters. "I'm worried he might need to prove that he is a strong president or ... that he puts America's interests first."
Many commentators mentioned the influence of Israel's supporters in Washington and the possibility that they will restrict Obama's freedom of movement in Middle East policy.
During the election campaign Obama and his running mate, Senator Joe Biden, both pledged support for the Jewish state.
Mohammed Faiad, a 72-year-old Palestinian living in Gaza, said he wanted Obama to treat the Palestinian people justly.
He added: "We do not know him. Things are not clear now. We do not know whether he will follow the policy of his predecessor and bow to the Jewish lobby."
Rabie Abdel Halim Ahmed, a Cairo construction worker who was reading about Obama in the newspaper, said: "It's a good change for America but what good can this achieve for us? He is still with the Zionists. It's not going to do us any good."
The skepticism was especially strong among Arab liberals who once hoped that Bush would follow through on his promises to push conservative Arab rulers toward democracy.
"I am asking Mr. Obama that ... at least the American policy should abstain from supporting dictatorships that obstruct the way of change," said Mustafa of the Egyptian protest movement.
"We hope that ... he adopts a just policy that restores to America its natural position of respect for humankind and democracy," said Mohamed Mahdi Akef, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition group and the main victim of Egyptian police repression for the past two years.
Only in Israel did politicians see continuity between the policies of the Bush administration and those of Obama.
"We have no doubt that the special relationship between Israel and the United States will continue and will be strengthened during the Obama administration," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in a statement.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, leader of the centrist Kadima party, and Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud party, made similar comments.
(Additional reporting by Alaa Shahine and Cynthia Johnston in Cairo, and the Reuters bureaus in Gaza, Beirut, Damascus, Tehran and Jerusalem)
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