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Obama: T-Minus 4 Days

It’s four days until President Barack Obama makes his much-anticipated visit to Cairo to give an address to the Muslim world.

And the buzz is growing.

This week, I’ll have a full piece about Obama’s upcoming visit, but in the meantime I thought I’d share with you some of what I’ve been hearing from a street-level perspective.

I spent the day Saturday in the heart of Cairo’s old city, a labyrinth-like market known as Khan il Khalili. There, tourists browse the crowded bazaar in search of souvenirs alongside locals looking for the latest cookware and bedding.

Of course, in the process of chatting with so many people, a number of viewpoints emerged. But let me tell you about some of the recurring and curious themes I found when I visited.

As you would expect, you have your two opposing camps of people: those who are excited about Obama’s trip and those who are cynical about it. These points will be detailed in my upcoming dispatch.

In a meantime, a couple of other interesting notes.

Some people I talked to had yet to hear of Obama. That’s right. No idea who he was. And this isn’t unique to Egypt, I heard the same thing when I visited Lebanon in March. These people make up the significant minority, to be sure, but it’s interesting nonetheless to talk with someone who hasn’t heard the name Obama.

This is likely to change this week when, if for no other reason, people who don’t know Obama have to ask why traffic across the city is shut down.

Others I approached for conversation were afraid to speak. Political and civil rights in Egypt are at a low ebb, and many feel uncomfortable talking with the media. One guy told me he couldn’t wait for Obama to arrive in Egypt. Then, when I told him I was press, he backed off, insisting he didn’t want to be quoted. I tried to explain that the Mubarak regime would likely welcome good local buzz about Obama’s visit, but the man held out.

It didn’t help that the old market, especially in the wake of a terrorist attack in January that killed one, is crawling with plainclothes police officers, recognizable only by the pistol strapped to their belt.

At one point, I was chatting with a man in a souvenir shop when a member of the plainclothes force sat down on a bench outside the store. We promptly shut down our conversation.

Finally, no major diplomatic event in Egypt could be complete without conspiracy theories.

The Obama administration announced this past week that the president would make a stop in Saudi Arabia before heading on to Egypt. A couple of people on the street discussed how putting Saudi Arabia before Egypt was a slight to the most populous Arab nation.

One blogger went so far as to suggest that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak cancelled his trip to the U.S. last week in retaliation for the Saudi visit.

This is reminiscent of the earliest days of the Obama administration, when Palestinian officials were atwitter when it was discovered that the new president had called them before phoning the Israelis.

Regardless, the complicated mosaic of people on the Egyptian street is sure to mean that the verdict on Obama’s speech will be as diverse as the anticipation.