WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama will deliver a much anticipated speech to the Muslim world in Egypt next month, seeking to repair ties that were severely damaged under his predecessor George W. Bush.
Many Arab and Muslim nations were angered by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, harsh interrogation of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo, abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Bush’s initial reluctance to pursue Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Obama’s Egypt trip fulfills a promise he made during his presidential campaign to give a major address to Muslims from a Muslim capital during the first few months in office.
The Muslim world will be watching to see his approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most Muslims believed Bush’s policies toward the region were biased in favor of Israel.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters on Friday the speech would be delivered in Egypt on June 4 but did not say whether it would be in the Egyptian capital Cairo.
The country has been a key partner for Washington in decades of efforts to secure Middle East peace and is one of the biggest recipients of U.S. military and economic aid.
But the choice of Egypt, which has a poor human rights record, could potentially overshadow the substance of Obama’s speech, and Gibbs found himself on the defensive over the issue at a White House news conference.
“It is a country that in many ways represents the heart of the Arab world,” Gibbs said.
“The scope of the speech, the desire for the president to speak (to the Muslim world), is bigger than where the speech was going to be given or who’s the leadership of the country where the speech is going to be given,” he said.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave a major policy speech in Egypt in 2005 at a time when U.S. popularity was seriously dented by the Iraq war.
Rice’s speech was part of the Bush administration’s “democracy agenda.” She urged reforms across the region, specifically targeting her host, which drew anger from Cairo.
However, the new U.S. administration has dropped the previous government’s focus on building democracy and Obama’s speech will likely be more conciliatory.
The government of President Hosni Mubarak, who is due to visit Washington later this month, has been increasingly bold in targeting its foes in recent years, arresting leftists and Islamists alike. Press freedoms remain limited and protesters have largely been scared off the streets.
The Egyptian government released opposition politician Ayman Nour in February, a move seen as trying to win goodwill from the new Obama administration. Nour spent three years in jail on forgery charges he says were fabricated to punish him for challenging Mubarak. Egypt says its courts are fair.
Human rights group Amnesty International has raised concerns about what it describes as systematic torture, deaths of prisoners in custody, unfair trials and arrests of people for their political and religious beliefs or for their sexual orientation,
The group said it had no problem with Obama’s choice of Egypt but stressed the U.S. leader should use the speech as a platform to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and human rights concerns in the Muslim world.
“I would say speak about his commitment to being fair on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and talk about the importance of free speech and assembly in the Arab and Muslim world, which unfortunately are very low,” said Zahir Janmohamed, Amnesty’s advocacy director for the Middle East.
“If he doesn’t address either of them, it will be a disappointment,” he said.
Shortly after his inauguration on January 20, Obama chose an Arab station, Al Arabiya, to give his first formal TV interview, widely interpreted as a signal that he wanted to improve relations with the Arab and Muslim world.
He also called for peace and dialogue with Islam in a speech to Turkey’s parliament on his first presidential visit to the Muslim world in April.
Gibbs said on Friday that “all of this gives the president the opportunity hopefully to extend the hand to those that in many ways are like us but simply have a different religion.”
During the same trip, Obama will also go to the German city of Dresden and the Buchenwald concentration camp complex, which was set up by the Nazis during World War Two, Gibbs said.
On June 6, Obama would travel to Normandy in France to attend events marking the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings by Allied forces that led to the end of the war.
Additional reporting by Ross Colvin, Matt Spetalnick and David Alexander; Editing by David Storey and Jackie Frank