05/20/2011, 00.00
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No cheers for Obama from the Middle East

by Paul Dakiki
Obama’s support for the Arab Spring is seen as coming “too late”. His speech is scoffed in the Arab world and attacked by Israel’s Netanyahu. The economic side of his proposal finds few takers as it risks further impoverishing the countries of the region. The US leader also discourages the recognition of a Palestinian state by the United Nations.
Beirut (AsiaNews) – The speech by US President Barack Obama and his vision for the Middle East have met with little success where it counts. For almost 50 minutes of passion and rhetoric, his gaze straight on the audience (and not the written text) made a good impression on the journalists and US politicians present, but fell flat in the region to which it was addressed.

Obama’s long speech ((full text here) praised the Jasmine Revolution and the quest for democracy in the region. The US leader also offered economic aid and investments for the countries that embrace democracy and defend human rights. However, in Egypt activists gave it the cold shoulder. On Twitter, some messages scoffed at the speech. “Obama gave a speech? Really? As if I care,” one said.

For analysts at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, the young revolutionaries are suspicious of Obama’s overture. For them, it comes too late after decades of support for Mubarak. The president’s words show more concern over developments that might escape Western control.

Even the pledge of loans, investments and aid did not draw much support. “Arabs are not going to embrace democracy simply because there is American money attached. We do not want American bribes,” an editorial in ArabNews said.

“Having aid for Egypt is something good, but also Egypt has its own foreign policy and I think the US should deal with Egypt not as a follower as [in] the past, but as a partner,” an Egyptian student is quoted as saying.

Many economists are also sceptical about promises of aid and loans. “The United States, Europe and Japan don’t have any resources or money,” a source told AsiaNews, “Obama’s proposal could also help the United States grab the oil of these countries. International banks will not lend money without real assets as collateral. For this reason, they’ll use state-owned oil fields as security until they can get their hands on them when governments cannot pay back their debt (see Greece).”

As expected rulers in Bahrain, Syria and Libya slammed the US president’s speech. However, the harshest criticism came from a US friend. Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu said that Obama’s proposal for a return to the 1967 (pre-Six Day War) borders was unacceptable because they were "indefensible”. Indeed, Israel’s announcement of more settlements in East Jerusalem comes as another blow to the wishes and proposals of the US president.

Palestinian leaders have reacted with more caution. Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called a meeting to discuss Obama’s speech.

In its speech, the US President said Hamas must recognise Israel, adding that he expects the proposal to recognise a Palestinian state in the United Nations next September to fail.

This has led Haaretz to write, “Yesterday, the U.S. president demolished the Palestinian's only accomplishment so far - the wave of international support for recognition of statehood in September”. For the Israeli daily, this way, Barack Obama has sent a signal to the world to side with Israel.

Equally critical Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri who said, “Obama reaffirmed his absolute support for the policies of the (Israeli) occupation and his rejection of any criticism of the Occupation”.

Bahrain activists, who have been demonstrating against their king for their rights, are the only ones with something positive to say about Obama’s speech.

Even so, Beirut’s Daily Star wrote in an editorial that Obama did not once mention Saudi Arabia, who economically and militarily backed repression in Bahrain.

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