Arabs wonder if Obama can deliver on fine words

CAIRO Thu May 19, 2011 4:04pm EDT

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CAIRO (Reuters) - The Middle East has moved on since the U.S. president addressed Muslims from Cairo two years ago, transformed by uprisings that have already ousted two autocrats.

As he addressed the region again on Thursday, some Arabs said Barack Obama wasn't keeping pace of the change, others welcomed his fine words but wanted more action and some said they were too busy with the regional turmoil to listen to him.

"In an effort to polish his tarnished image in front of the Arab people, Obama delivers empty words which don't carry much weight to the brave new world," said Mohsen Sehrawy, 36, a marketing consultant in Egypt.

"He will have to do more if he is to provide truthful support for human rights in the region and peaceful transitions toward democracy," he said in Cairo, where 18 days of protests ended the 30-year rule of U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak on February 11.

Obama on Thursday sought to recast ties with Arabs, pledging support for democratic change, Middle East peace and economic aid to further the transformation.

"It was a great speech, very eloquent, full of hope, there was a real commitment to democratic transition in the Arab world. But we have heard a lot of beautiful speeches from Obama before and we don't know whether he can deliver this time," said Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo University.

In 2009, he sought to rebuild U.S. relations with Muslims with a speech at Nafaa's university. Then too he voiced a commitment to democratic change and Middle East peace. Many at the time praised his words but also wanted action.

In Benghazi, the eastern Libyan city controlled by rebels fighting longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi, a spokesman said rebels welcomed Thursday's speech but were cautious.

MILITARY INTERVENTION

"It's a step forward. It's a little bit short of recognizing us, but to say a legitimate, credible council is a prelude to recognition ... I think he was very careful. But overall, it was positive," said spokesman Jalal al-Galal.

There was greater enthusiasm from other Libyans in Benghazi, which was the target of a convoys of Gaddafi's troops until U.S. and other NATO warplanes and missiles stopped them.

"I believe his words are serious ... He really wants to support the Libyan people," said Fathi Khalifa, 30, a driver.

But Ali Dardoum, 58, another Libyan, said: "Words don't really matter. What matters is the action and the enforcement. If nobody implements these actions, then it's meaningless."

The "Arab Spring" began in Tunisia, where President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted in January, and continued in Egypt where it claimed another president. Unrest since then has rocked presidents and monarchs in Yemen, Bahrain, Syria and Libya.

But many Arabs question why Obama's administration has backed military intervention in Libya, imposed sanctions on Syria but failed to take a similar firm line against Bahrain.

Bahraini protesters, whose island state is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, demanded change and were confronted with bullets.

"We hope there is a policy to support countries where change has happened such as Egypt, Tunisia and Iraq, and those who need change such as Syria and Libya," said Iraqi Zuhair al-Aaraji.

"But America needs to be balanced in its policy. We criticize its silent position toward what is happening in Bahrain," said Aaraji, a member of Iraq's parliament.

COUNTERING CRITICISM

Essam al-Erian, senior member of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, said: "A disappointing speech. Nothing new. American strategy remains as is. American cover for dictatorial presidents, in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain remains as is. Perhaps the sharpest tone was toward Libya. American promises are just promises."

Obama's bid to reset ties with a skeptical Arab world was aimed at countering criticism over an uneven U.S. response to the region's uprisings that threaten both U.S. friends and foes, and his failure to advance Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

Obama gave detail on the boundaries for any future Palestinian state but also outlined Israeli security needs. And he did not offer a formal peace plan.

President Mahmoud Abbas voiced appreciation for Obama's efforts to resume peace talks.

But Samir Awad, a political analyst att the West Bank's Birzeit University, said: "Obama did not come up with any new position. He totally adopted the Israeli position and that is not the role of an honest mediator."

The U.S. president promised $1 billion debt relief and other economic support for Egypt, whose economy has been hammered since the uprising drove out tourists and investors.

Yet, for Egyptian housewife Aisha Hady, 46, the daily grind meant she had no time for speeches.

"There are more important things for me to worry about right now. The economy is in a state of disaster and whatever you say he pledged is probably nothing in comparison to the challenge."

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