By Jonathan Wright
CAIRO (Reuters) - Arabs and Muslims gave the benefit of some doubt on Wednesday to U.S. President Barack Obama’s offer of “a new way forward” with the Muslim world, but many said it would take deeds rather than words to convince them.
After eight years of President George W. Bush, who invaded two Muslim countries and gave strong support to Israel, Arabs and Muslims watched Obama’s inaugural speech on Tuesday closely for any sign that U.S. policy toward them will change.
With some exceptions on the fringes, a clear majority said they welcomed a new tone from Obama, who promised relations based on mutual interest and mutual respect.
“This is a speech that reflected a new spirit of dialogue, reaching out and working together. This is a new direction that is certainly not what the Bush administration has been pursuing,” said former Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher.
Hilal Khashan, political science professor at the American University of Beirut, noted Obama’s reference to Muslims as a significant part of the patchwork of the United States, an attitude not common in U.S. political discourse.
“The fact that he mentioned Muslims means a lot. This is a symbolic gesture to the Muslim world that they are part of the world. He’s inclusive,” he said.
In Britain, the umbrella Muslim Council of Britain welcomed Obama’s offer of new relations with the Muslim world.
“His intentions are noble. I hope it ends the rift between the United States and the Muslim world, which has grown further and further in the last eight years,” said Muhammad Abdul Bari, the secretary general of the organization.
Even in Sudan, which has had poor relations with the United States for years because of disagreements over the conflict in Darfur, the government said it was positive about Obama.
“We are very optimistic... This is based on the background of what (President Obama) has been saying, about a change in foreign policy, about moving away from Iraq,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Ali al-Sadig.
In Egypt the opposition Muslim Brotherhood, which has borne the brunt of repression by a government backed by the United States, said it too saw hope in Obama’s words.
“I was happy when I heard him saying the relationship with the Arab and Muslim world should be based on respect,” said Essam el-Erian, head of the Brotherhood’s political committee.
“We need mutual respect. If this attitude persists, I think it will transform relations between the United States and Arabs,” he added.
Gameela Ismail, whose politician husband Ayman Nour has been in jail for three years after challenging Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in elections, noted Obama’s words on leaders who cling to power through “deceit and the silencing of dissent.”
Obama told such leaders that they were “on the wrong side of history.” “We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,” the U.S. president added.
“This is very strong... The words make anyone feel optimistic about the future, but I hope it will develop into real actions and real policies and strategies,” Ismail added.
The George W. Bush administration also promised to make democracy in the Arab world a priority but analysts say it lost interest when Islamists made electoral gains in the region. Arab liberals and democrats felt abandoned and deceived.
SILENT ON GAZA
Many ordinary people were more skeptical that Obama will match his rhetoric with real changes in U.S. policy.
Zoubeir Ben Sassi, a 40-year-old technician in Tunis, said: “We thought that Obama would be different and we hoped that his policy in the Middle East would be fair. But it seemed that he is like his predecessors.
“He was silent over the Gaza massacre... When Israel stopped the war he spoke about a new start with the Muslim world. They are just words and nothing will be done on the ground.”
Obama’s reluctance to comment during three weeks of Israeli attacks on Gaza reduced expectations in the Arab world that he will adjust the U.S. policy of support for Israel — the main Arab and Muslim grievance against successive U.S. presidents.
“All of this talk won’t result in anything. He’s just the same as Bush,” said Zahi Abdo, a Lebanese man.
Adil Gatae, 42, a guard at a government building in Baghdad, said: “The West doesn’t seek to benefit Islam. Islam for them is a religion of terror. I don’t think there will be big change in the course of U.S. policy. These are false promises.”
Lebanese political commentator Sateh Noureddin said: “It is change in the language (addressing) the Muslim world but I don’t think there will be any change in the essence of the relationship with the Muslim world.”
In Morocco Abdelilah Benkirane, chief of the main Islamist opposition party, said he liked Obama’s words but doubts he has sufficient freedom of movement to put them into practice.
“We are waiting for action, for deeds. Barack Obama’s words are nice but we want to see action. He does not rule America alone. He leads the U.S. on behalf of global companies including the ones that make and sell weapons,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Reuters bureaux in Beirut, Tunis, Rabat, Cairo, Baghdad, Tehran, Khartoum, Ankara, London and Kuwait; Writing by Jonathan Wright; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)