The major policy speech delivered by U.S. President Barack Obama Thursday was timed so that everyone in the Middle East and North Africa could hear it too. As if speaking to the masses directly, he invoked the name of the street vendor in Tunisia who set himself on fire, triggering the protests that have torn through the Arab World and beyond.
“In too many countries, a citizen like that young vendor had nowhere to turn — no honest judiciary to hear his case; no independent media to give him voice; no credible political party to represent his views; no free and fair election where he could choose his leader,” the president said.
(Read the reaction to Obama's Cairo speech aimed at the Muslim world in 2009.)
Obama called for peace between Israelis and Palestinians and pushed for a two-state solution along the lines of the 1967 borders. He called on Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, to lead a transition to democracy. He also called on Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to follow through with promises to step down.
He singled out Tunisia and Egypt as positive examples of the force of non-violent protests and he vowed to support their economies as they transition to democracy.
He said that Bahrain must hold discussions with the opposition, not throw them in jail. He did not mention Saudi Arabia.
So, what do the people who live in these countries think? Mostly they think it was just more of the same.
Israelis who watched Obama's speech said the president's goals were unrealistic.
"You cannot promise security to Israel and advocate a return to the 1967 borders," said Danny Dayan, chairman of the Yesha Council, a settler group.
Dayan also disagreed with Obama's comments that settlement expansion is an obstacle to peace, instead saying the Palestinians were to blame for not negotiating.
“The fact that Fatah, led by Abu Mazen, entered a coalition with Hamas basically makes all the things Obama discussed irrelevant," he added, referring to the recent settlement reached between the two largest Palestinian political movements. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization in the United States and Israel.
Media analyst Dahlia Scheindlin said the president was being overly optimistic.
"The speech assumes something I think is no longer assumed by the international diplomatic community, that the two parties can still get back to the negotiating table before September," she said.
Yariv Oppenheimer, secretary-general of Peace Now, an Israeli NGO that promotes peace between Israel and Palestine, said Obama's optimism lacked concrete vision.
"The feeling is that Obama has no plan of how to return to the peace process," he said. "We all know the 1967 borders. There's nothing new."
— Daniella Cheslow in Jerusalem
Palestinians said Obama didn't go far enough.
"If he wants to preserve dignity in Egypt and Tunisia and across the Middle East and North Africa, he should also recognize our dignity in the occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank and East Jerusalem and ask Israel to finally give us our freedom," said Faisal Shawa, a construction engineer and entrepreneur in Gaza City.
In East Jerusalem, Fatah legislator Jihad Abu Znaid, agreed.
"It's nothing new," Abu Znaid said of the speech.
"I think the American government must give a clear position about the Palestinian state. If not, they will lose more credibility in the Arab world," she added.
Shawa was wary of Obama's push to return to negotiations.
"Israel continues to build settlements and take our land in the West Bank," he said." If we keep talking and Israel keeps building, after six years, we will have no land for our state."
— Daniella Cheslow in Jerusalem
Most of the satellite-dish-equipped tents in Sanaa’s “Change Square” were tuned in to Al Jazeera to watch Obama’s speech. Most were excited, expecting to hear something of substance from the American president. But, before even half the speech had finished, many had already flipped to another channel.
“He spoke in very broad terms,” said Adel Al-Surabi, one of the protest leaders. “But this is just more of the same as far as we’re concerned. We know the U.S. will never intervene in Yemen as they’ve done in Libya and Syria.”
Obama only mentioned Yemen once in his entire speech.
“If America is to be credible, we must acknowledge that our friends in the region have not all reacted to the demands of change consistent with the principles that I have outlined today,” the president said. “That is true in Yemen, where President Saleh needs to follow through on his commitment to transfer power.”
In an open letter addressed to Obama, which was released before his speech, The Coordinating Council for the Youth Revolution of Change — Yemen’s largest protest organization — pleaded with the president to recognize the aspirations of the Yemeni people.
“America's democracy inspires us and our people deserve no less than what decent human beings are entitled to,” the letter reads. “This is a unique opportunity for your administration to endorse the struggle of the people in Yemen against the dictatorship of Mr. Saleh.”
To the Yemenis, Obama’s speech fell short.
— Jeb Boone in Sanaa
At a time of tension in U.S.-Saudi bilateral relations, it was undoubtedly a relief here that in his speech Obama did not mention the kingdom directly when it came to the issue of political reforms.
Response was generally ho-hum, as Saudis said they heard little new in the president’s remarks.
Saudi human rights activist Mohammed Al Qahtani called the speech “eloquent,” but questioned if its ideals will be “transferred into policy.”
Obama should have been tougher on the Bahraini government, Al Qahtani added, and he lamented the lack of a substantive “roadmap” for moving forward in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Asaad Al Shamlan, assistant professor of political science at Riyadh’s Institute of Diplomatic Studies, predicted that the “powerful” speech “will not be received easily in many parts of the Arab world ... because he’s almost saying that the status quo in all Arab countries is unsustainable.”
Even though he did not mention Saudi Arabia, Al Shamlan added, “you can read between the lines.”
No doubt the most sensitive topic for Obama was Bahrain, Al Shamlan said. In making it clear that the United States “is not backing the hardliners” in the island’s government, Obama was well aware that he was speaking to “the whole GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] and these are the closest allies of the United States.”
Abdullah Al Askar, deputy head of the Shura Council’s foreign relations committee, said “the Saudi people appreciate” that Obama took note of the fact that “Iran is putting its fingers into the internal affairs of Bahrain.”
On the other hand, Al Askar thought Obama was too wishy-washy on Syria, saying he “was not taking a real stand with the leadership or with the people.”
— Caryle Murphy in Riyadh
“I thought it was an excellent speech,” said Radwan Ziadeh, director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies and a visiting scholar at George Washington University who attended the speech at the State Department.
“Obama said that the Syrian regime only has two options: Democratic transition or face more sanctions. This is exactly what we wanted to hear — the change should come from within. He called for a transitional period, which is what the opposition is calling for.”
The Syrian regime has pursued a brutal crackdown of peaceful protests, which began in mid-March. Human rights activists say that as many as 850 protesters have been killed and more than 8,000 have been arrested.
“Obama pledged his support for the people when he supports a democratic Syria."
In Syria’s Kurd-dominated northern city of Qamishli, Juan Youssef, a Kurdish activist, said Syrians had been eagerly awaiting the speech.
“This speech was a positive step away from the old policies of supporting dictators in the region. Now they are acknowledging peoples rights to self determination," he said.
Youssef welcomed what he saw as the war on terrorism no longer dominating American policy in the Middle East.
“They acknowledge that the stability of the region can only be guaranteed through democratic states. But I don’t want any foreign intervention inside Syria now or in the future. What we need is pressure to change this regime through flexible, peaceful and gradual stages — so we can get ourselves out of this violent and bloody circle. The U.N. and EU can apply diplomatic and economic pressure on Assad’s regime — but we don’t want general economic sanctions as these would only hurt the people,” Youssef added.
One of the leaders of the Local Coordination Committees, a grassroots youth movement helping to organize the street protests in Syria, said:
“We have to see the whole picture. There have been many pledges from the U.S. before, especially regarding the Palestinians. The change must come from people themselves not from U.S. policy. After Obama’s speech in Cairo people waited for the change to come from the U.S., but now they wait for the change to come from us — which is how it should be,” the protester said.
“While Obama called for a change in Egypt he didn’t expect it to come from the people. We need to understand that all that has happened in Tunisia and Egypt and now Syria has come from the people themselves. Obama is free to say what he wants — and we are free to do what we want in our own way.”
— Annasofie Flamand in Beirut
In Lebanon, decades of war and occupation by Israel and political interference by Syria have left many observers of the political scene skeptical toward American policy and wary of instability in Damascus.
“Everyone was waiting to hear what he was going to say about the Palestinians, but it was only a small part of the speech. Obama promised security to Israel without looking at the needs of the Palestinians,” said Abbas Ibrahim, a shopkeeper and member of Hezbollah, the Iranian-financed party and militant group that fought the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon.
“The U.S. is only interested in protecting its own interests in the area. Now it wants to climb on the back of the youth movement in the Middle East in order to keep interfering in the region,” he said.
On Syria, Ibrahim argued that Obama’s threat to President Assad to reform or “get out of the way” and condemnation of the armed crackdown on protests was one-sided. “He never mentioned the soldiers and innocent people who have been killed by the armed gangs,” he said, echoing the Syrian regime line.
Shadi Hallak, a Sunni entrepreneur, was equally unenthusiastic about the speech.
“I cannot applaud the speech,” he said. “U.S. policy in the region will never change. I didn’t like his support for Israel, which is America’s spoiled child. He didn’t acknowledge any rights for the Palestinians.”
On Syria, Hallak said that he worries for Lebanon’s economic and political stability if U.S. policies continue to demand reforms in Syria. “Obama supports chaos in Syria and it will affect Lebanon,” he said.
“The Syrians could start a war here if the U.S. keeps pushing them. Look at what happened at the border,” he said, referring to the recent anniversary of Nakba, the Palestinian term for Israel’s creation, when Palestinians scaled Lebanon’s border fence and climbed into Israel. “The Palestinians have only one card they can play.”
— Annasofie Flamand in Beirut
Since February, movements in Morocco have been organizing peaceful marches demanding democratic reforms echoing Obama's message in today's address that “change cannot be denied.”
Many here applauded a speech that was perceived as a major shift from the regional policies of former U.S. President George W. Bush.
“His speech was very honest and courageous. Not many world leaders have voiced grim realities in the region in such a manner,” said Aly Horma, a 33-year-old entrepreneur from Marrakesh who studied in America before returning home. “Obama rightly pointed out that the status quo is not sustainable and that there is a need for concrete changes.”
Horma added that the president rightly highlighted that the task will not be simple and that, despite many challenges, programs must allow economic expansion in order to facilitate a democratic transition.
“I hope other leaders will join Obama in this effort to economically help the region go through a democratic transition,” he said.
— Aida Alami in Casablanca
Hewa M. Rasul, a Kurdish businessman living in Kurdistan, said Obama said nothing of interest.
“Obama is stating the obvious of what’s happening in the region, but the U.S. has not added anything,” he said. “They are not getting involved. They have not even acknowledged the protests happening in Kurdistan.”
He said that eight years ago the United States came to Iraq to free the people and destroy the weapons of mass destruction.
“What are they still doing here?” he asked.
“It is for the oil — this is the reason they came here. They do not care about a country unless it has oil. A lot of conflict happened in Bahrain, but the U.S. barely acknowledged it because their oil resources are not as rich as Iraq or Libya. Bahrain has no strategic value.”
— Tracey Shelton in Kurdistan
As Obama was taking the podium tonight, Turks were enjoying Youth Day celebrations and most had no idea or interest in his speech.
The Hurriyet Daily News, however, ran with the headline, "Obama: Assad must lead Syria democratic transition or 'get out of the way.'" The Daily Zaman, meanwhile, it's main competitor, didn’t mention it.
Baris Gunal, a 33 year-old Turkish writer and director who divides his time between Istanbul and in Los Angeles, said he found it to be "very much a cookie-cutter speech."
"It's almost like you can generate this stuff through an artificial intelligence program," he said.
“Whatever the U.S. does is taken with a grain of salt," he added.
Gunal believes that the United States intervenes in oil rich countries, but subscribes to a "democracy isn't worth getting killed for" attitude elsewhere.
On Israel, Obama's words were the same as American presidents before him, he said.
"They always side with Israel. Palestinians are always associated with terrorists and people who support terror," he said.
Gunal said Obama's speech would only reinforce the sense in Turkey, which wasn’t mentioned, that the United States is always acting like an older brother.
"I'm okay with him not mentioning Turkey. It's never good to hear how Turkey should act," he said.
— Jodi Hilton in Аntakya, Turkey
Most Afghans were blissfully unaware that the U.S. president was due to make an important speech on Thursday evening. No television networks carried the event, preferring movies, song shows, soap operas and the Afghan version of “So You Want to be a Millionaire?”
Nasim, a young, English-speaking Afghan who watched the speech on CNN, was unimpressed.
“The only thing he said about Afghanistan is that the U.S. was leaving,” he snorted, referring to the beginning of the speech, when Obama boasted that the United Stated has broken the Taliban momentum and was preparing a drawdown of troops in July.
He was also a bit prickly about Obama’s criticism of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.
“Who is he to tell Assad to get out of the way?” he fumed. “It’s all about America’s power in the world.”
He called a few friends to gauge their reactions. Like Nasim, they were young, highly educated and working in international organizations.
Their responses were identical:
— Jean MacKenzie in Kabul
Shameem Akhtar, the former chairman of the international relations department at the University of Karachi, said he saw nothing new in Obama’s policy speech.
American policies toward the Middle East have always been based on double standards and, he said, they still are.
For example, he said, the United States supported the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, but has handed Bahrain and Yemen over to Saudi Arabia. And he said that Obama should do more to protect Palestinians.
“The Palestine issue is the actual root of extremism and terrorism all over the world, including in Pakistan and Afghanistan,” he said. “If this core issue had been resolved, organizations like Al Qaeda would never have emerged. Osama bin laden instigated the Muslim youths in the name of the genocide of Palestinians.”
“If the Palestinian issue is resolved,” he added, “75 percent of terrorism and extremism would automatically be eliminated.”
— Aamir Latif in Karachi