We had one of our website reporters in Cairo yesterday to cover the President’s talk at the university and we received this report a few hours ago.
It is difficult to start to describe yesterday because so many descriptions come to mind. “Wow” seems to be a good starting place. Then comes “proud” quickly followed by “emotional.”
So let’s start with “wow.” Even though there is some disappointment that Obama didn’t provide more concrete policy proposals on the peace process, almost universally Egyptians that I spoke with, saw on TV last night, or read on their blogs gave this speech a big thumbs up. Of course, there was pride of place–Egyptians were excited that Obama chose Cairo as the venue for this speech. After the speech pride gave way to the feeling of a personal connection with the American president. He used verses from the Koran, he spoke about things that mattered to real people, he wasn’t afraid to talk about democracy, and he did it with a graceful and rousing prose that just doesnt’ exist in Egyptian political life. During the speech students shouted “We love you Obama!” They chanted his name; they cheered on their feet when he entered; they gave him the loudest standing ovation I have heard in Egypt when he left.
I think part of the appeal (maybe a big part) is the Egyptians want their own Obama. They want change. They want to be led by someone who has intellect and humility, two traits of Obama’s which have been highly praised after the speech. (A side note: some news commentators didn’t know what a teleprompter is and they thought he was speaking extemporaneously…) So while the Egyptians wait for their Obama, they seem happy enough to adopt ours.
On to proud…which is mostly my reaction. As I sat there and listened to an American president talk truthfully, even painstakingly so, and passionately about shaping a relationship with Muslim countries based on mutual interests and mutual respect, I teared up. Really. He didn’t lecture. He didn’t threaten or swagger. There wasn’t a cowboy bone in that body. He wasn’t apologizing, either. He very clearly laid out what US interests are and was clear that he will defend them. But here’s the difference from the past eight years: he framed our interests in terms of human rights and peace. He was able to communicate in language that his audience not only relates to, like verses from the Koran, but in a way that demonstrates he can see all sides to a problem, that he can see the world from their eyes, too. By doing that, he affirmed the dignity of his audience — and did America very proud.
Ok, so all of that is emotional, but there were even greater emotions among Egyptians that went beyond “wow” and “pride.” Maybe some of my more eloquent friends can give me a better word to describe the impact of the whole day, but let me try to describe the sense in the example of one Egyptian contact. My friend always plays her cards close to the chest. I usually consider her to be fair, but not “pro” U.S. Yesterday tears were streaming down her face. When I saw her after the speech and asked her what she thought, she started in. Her view was that never in her life had such a cross section of Egypt been together in one room. Egyptian government officials, opposition leaders, religious leaders, bloggers, journalists, activists, students, Muslim Brotherhood, the Israeli ambassador (he was invited with other regional ambassadors), intellectuals and artists. To her there was suddenly hope. If Obama can bring these people together and speak to each group’s different concerns, she thinks he just may be able to do it on a bigger scale and actually achieve peace in the region. She said she had long lost hope for peace but that it was “woken up,” as she put it. And that surprised her and overwhelmed her.
So now to the question I know you want to ask: did I meet him? No, I didn’t get to shake his hand. Sadly, I was working. I didnt get home until around 10:30, had a scotch on the rocks and fell asleep. It was one long, emotional, proud and, oh, did I say? A wow day!