IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

After years of Bush, Arabs see hope in Obama

An Arab news network blared U.S. election coverage in a Cairo hair salon, and the barbers and beauticians watched the images of Barack Obama's victory in amazement.
MIDEAST Egypy U.S Election Reax
Egyptians newspapers are fronted by pictures of the U.S. elections and titled "Black President at the white house" in Cairo, Egypt, on Thursday.Amr Nabil / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

An Arab news network blared U.S. election coverage in a Cairo hair salon, and the barbers and beauticians watched the images of Barack Obama's victory in amazement. Then it cut to scenes from the latest Israeli-Palestinian violence and the funeral of Gaza fighters.

"Look, do you see that? That will end! It will get better!" blurted Ayman al-Sawi, caught up in the Obama enthusiasm.

Others in the shop sneered. All American presidents are the same: Pro-Israel, one man said. But al-Sawi stood his ground.

"It won't be perfect, but Obama will be kinder," insisted the owner of a nearby electronics shop, who was hanging out in the salon on a customer-less Wednesday morning. "Look, I know America will always put Israel first, I'm not naive ... But at least with Obama, I feel he will throw us a bone."

Almost despite themselves, many Arabs are daring to hope Obama will bring something new to the Middle East, where bitterness toward the U.S. is probably the highest in the world.

Part of the optimism is simple joy at the imminent end of the Bush administration. Few figures are more disliked among the Mideast public than President Bush.

Negative image
Over past years, the bloodshed in Iraq, fears of war with Iran, abuse at Abu Ghraib and prisoners at Guantanamo convinced many that the United States was an anti-Arab, anti-Muslim bully. A feeling of despair and hopelessness became widespread and few believed U.S. policies would ever change.

Even before Obama's victory, Arabs cautioned themselves to be realistic. The U.S. will always throw its weight around and will always back Israel, they say; Obama, even if he really does want a new approach on Iraq, Iran, the Palestinians and the war on terror, may not be able to implement it — and in any case he'll be absorbed first with the U.S. economic crisis.

Still, to many Obama seems to spell something different — whether because of the color of his skin, his Muslim family ties — his Kenyan father was a Muslim — or simply his charisma.

Many believe he's more sympathetic to the Palestinians, or that he'll emphasize dialogue over what was seen as Bush's more bellicose tone. Some watched the dramatic vote and wished they could see similar democratic change in Arab countries, ruled by authoritarian leaders who stay in power through rigged elections.

"When Obama won, I felt it was the return of the American dream," Iman Bibars, an Egyptian women's activist and writer who is often sharply critical of the United States, told The Associated Press. "I just cried through the whole thing, because it gave me hope that the good guy will win, in a world where good people don't normally win."

Abdelmonem Mahmoud, a prominent young activist with Egypt's fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, says he's "one of those who has fallen for the magic of Obama's charisma."

"He has created this mental state with the idea of change. Just the word has an effect," Mahmoud said Thursday. "That's the emotional side. On the rational side, I have my doubts."

"I just hope he'll have real (Israeli-Palestinian) negotiations, whatever they lead to," he said. "Maybe people have big dreams for him that aren't realistic. But it's realistic to hope he'll press for real negotiations."

In Beirut, Sarah Haidar, an 18-year-old university student enveloped head-to-toe in an Islamic chador, said Obama's win "gives some hope for a better future ... It's enough that he holds a positive view toward dialogue with Iran and Syria, which Bush considered evil."

Monumental challenges await
The Middle East poses some of the most monumental foreign policy challenges for an Obama administration. He has promised a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq by 2011, a position that pleases many in the Arab world, though it also raises fears of renewed chaos after the Americans leave.

Also looming is the standoff with Iran over its nuclear program and its increasing influence across the Middle East. Obama has said he's open to direct negotiations with Iran, a welcome change to many Arabs who feared a war could break out.

Iran's hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad offered his congratulations to Obama on Thursday — the first time an Iranian leader has offered such wishes to a U.S. president-elect since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

In Israel, however, many fear Obama will make concessions that will open the way for Tehran to build a nuclear weapon, and some Arab governments are wary of anything that could allow rival Iran to strengthen its foothold in the region.

But heaviest on most Arabs' minds is the question of how strongly Obama will push the peace process with Israel. The Bush administration put negotiations on the back burner for nearly seven years until a last-minute drive to revive Israeli-Palestinian talks. The negotiations have made little progress, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowledged Thursday that a peace deal by a year-end deadline is no longer possible.

Syria is also hoping for direct negotiations with Israel with U.S. mediation after months of indirect talks through Turkish intermediaries. Damascus also hopes for a thaw in relations with Washington, which have been bitter throughout the Bush administration.

'Someone who looks like us'
Arab news networks have run blanket coverage of Obama's win, with many analysts playing down expectations for dramatic shifts in U.S. policy. Also heavily covered was the history-in-the-making nature of Obama's win: Al-Jazeera repeatedly aired a long report on African-Americans and the civil rights struggle, with images of Martin Luther King Jr.

In Sudan — another country with strong tensions with Washington — cell phone text message exchanges in Khartoum celebrated: "Congratulations to Africa" and "Congratulations for Obama. Change is possible."

Even some Islamic militants were inspired. One prominent hard-line Kuwaiti cleric, Sheikh Hamed al-Ali, said in a Web statement that the Islamic world should "benefit from this example and request change also, and get rid of any regime that leads it with ignorance and injustice."

At the Cairo hair salon, manager Mahmoud Hassan said he felt relief with Obama's victory. "I see myself in him — like there is someone who looks like us, someone from Africa, who is the ruler of the world.

"If I met Obama, I would just tell him, 'Please don't let us down. Don't let this hope fade away, and let us feel safe with you.'"