Arab intellectuals contemplate Obama’s authenticity

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The election of American President Barack Obama hearkened an era where change was a possibility. Arabs across the world believed in Obama’s message and hoped that a new means of communication would be established that would bring forth a new generation of American-Arab relations, but in recent weeks, with the end of the Gaza war and the Egyptian government’s crackdown on dissidents, the notion that Obama will bring change swiftly, is waning.

Arab writers talk of a regional “refusal” to see that the world has changed. Khalil Al Anani, an expert in Islamic movements, wrote in The Daily News Egypt that the so-called “change” promised by Obama is little more than semantics.

“Now, many Arabs refuse to recognise that a new regional order has been consolidated over the past six years and that what is taking place now are not just altercations dictated by temporary conditions or attempts to impose the will of one party, but rather the painful labour of this regional order that effectively puts an end to the ‘old Middle East’ argument,” he wrote.

“Everybody seems to be unaware that three wars in less than six years (2003-2009) are capable of reversing weights, re-ordering positions and roles and blurring the rest of the features of the ‘old’ regional order,” Anani stated.

He believes that while Obama may have good intentions in terms of reaching out to the Arab world, which he did in a televised interview with pan-Arabic television network, Al Arabiya, the region must maintain calm and understand that all cannot be changed immediately.

Azmi Bishara wrote in Al Ahram weekly that “Obama has taken pains to make it clear that the “us” involved is pretty much the same, only having changed, insofar as to make it possible for him to become president. Nor is the one who brought this change and the change was hardly sudden.”

In a sense, Arab intellectuals are already becoming frustrated with Washington’s policies and lack of movement on the regional front. Bishara said while some things have changed in Washington, much remains the same.

According to the writer, “the new president represents the Democratic wing of that ‘us’, yet he is promoting the greatest possible continuity with what went before and the greatest possible bipartisanship, to which testify keeping Robert Gates as secretary of defence and designating George Mitchell as special envoy to the Middle East (Mitchell was co-sponsor of the Mitchell-Tenet plan that preceded the roadmap).”

The route Obama will take and sooner, rather than later, will determine his appeal to Arabs in the Middle East. If he chooses to move slow, the confidence that his election brought to the Arab world may quickly lose its steam and leave many wondering where the promise of “change” and a new direction have gone.

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