CAIRO (Reuters) - President Barack Obama’s pledge on Wednesday to strive for better relations with the Muslim world drew skepticism in Cairo, where last year he called for a new beginning in the Middle East after years of mistrust.
In a visit to Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, Obama acknowledged more needed to be done to repair ties with the Muslim world.
“As soon as Obama took over, he said he would do this and that -- a lot of things. But he still hasn’t met a single goal,” said Saad Zaki Khalil, 56, who was selling cigarette lighters in central Cairo.
Seventeen months after Obama’s Cairo University speech, al Qaeda is still threatening the West, peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians remain stalled over the issue of West Bank settlements and U.S. troops remain in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Many in the Middle East believe that Washington’s tight alliance with Israel makes it impossible to end the suffering of the Palestinians, breeding cynicism among Arab Muslims toward U.S. intentions in the region.
“It’s all speeches -- in the end the same American politics, and Jewish politics, continues,” said Cairo retiree Mohamed Abdel. “This is why nothing since Obama’s Cairo speech has translated into action with Arab nations.”
Obama quoted from the Koran in his June 2009 speech in the Arab world’s most populous city as he strove to show that Western ideas and Islam shared common principles and that nurturing differences plays into the hands of Islamist radicals.
In Jakarta on Wednesday, he repeated that America was not at war with Islam, was determined to bring security to Afghanistan and would spare no effort to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
“I personally had higher expectations for change” after the 2009 speech, said Cairo lawyer Hatem Khalil. “It’s ignorant to believe Obama will solve the Palestinian case... I also agree that if the U.S. takes out all its military from Iraq in one phase the country will collapse -- but I think that with Egypt, more needs to be done.”
Obama’s Jakarta speech emphasized democracy and Indonesia’s progress in bridging racial and religious divides, but Cairo University politics professor Hassan Nafaa said Arab states had moved away from democratic reform since the Bush administration.
Nafaa said Obama did not mention the recent record of Arab governments on political reform though his upbeat remarks about Indonesia’s vibrant democracy were seen as a veiled reference to autocratic Muslim countries to emulate the Asian country.
In Egypt, a decades-old state of emergency remains in force and opposition groups say they are muzzled and their activities curtailed. President Hosni Mubarak, 82, has not yet said if he will seek a sixth six-year term in office next year.
“We knew a while ago that Obama does not want to pressure the Middle East states that are friends with the United States,” Nafaa said.
“And this is because he fully realizes he has economic and political interests with those states and pressuring them will not lead to any outcome, as previous pressure from former President George Bush failed to bring any change.”
Additional reporting by Yasmine Saleh; Writing by Tom Pfeiffer; Editing by Samia Nakhoul