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Obama goes to Cairo

Egyptians may be in for a surprise when President Barack Obama visits next month to deliver on a campaign promise to speak directly to the Muslim world.

Egyptians, for the most part, welcomed Obama’s election in November and celebrated his inauguration earlier this year. But the fierce war between Israel and Hamas that roared into mid-January seemed to temper Arab enthusiasm over Obama. Celebration gave way to a sense of urgency — the feeling that Obama would need to act quickly to help resolve the Arab-Israeli crisis.

Obama moved quickly to take a (somewhat) tougher stance on Israel. He also invited Israeli, Palestinian, and Egyptian leaders to the White House. All three delegations will visit over the next week.

Despite the famous face, Obama and his policy stances are little known entities in Egypt. Gone, for the most part, are the rumors that he’s Muslim, but most Egyptians still couldn’t tell you the first thing he stands for. They more see him as a welcome departure from the Bush administration.

But when Obama speaks on June 4, Egyptians may hear rhetoric that more closely resembles the Bush line than they’d hoped.

In choosing Egypt, Obama will visit the front lines of a debate over human rights. Egypt has operated under emergency rule since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981. This has given President Hosni Mubarak broad latitude to jail members of the political opposition, clamp down on newspapers critical to his regime, and harass bloggers and protesters.

Obama will be under pressure to address these issues in the speech. His administration has already been stung by criticism, after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited East Asia earlier this year and downplayed human rights issues surrounding China. Plus, if Obama wants to be viewed as an honest broker in the region (something no president can claim since, perhaps, Jimmy Carter) he’ll need to get equally tough with all sides.

But he risks a backlash if the Egyptian public sees their first real encounter with Obama as a repudiation of their domestic political situation.

Obama’s visit to Egypt will seek to make progress on a number of fronts: bringing Egypt back into the fold, ushering in a new era for U.S.-Arab relations, advancing the cause of Arab-Israeli peace, gaining support for continued efforts in Iraq, encouraging Arabs to reject religious extremism, and allaying regional fears over Iran.

Pretty ambitious stuff.

But if Obama doesn’t succeed in walking a narrow line, he’ll just be viewed as another foreign critic.