George W. Bush was the American President Arabs loved to hate. Even out of office, he ranked as the most disliked foreign leader in a survey of public opinion in six Middle East countries completed last month. The contrast couldn't be sharper with President Barack Obama at the outset of his trip to the Mideast in which he will address the Muslim world in Cairo, and as his popularity is surging toward rock-star proportions. Obama's problem, however, may be that the good vibes he's eliciting in Arab countries are accompanied by expectations he may struggle to meet.
The same poll that found a 61% dislike for Bush saw nearly half of respondents 45% take a positive view of the new President. And, in a region known for its deep cynicism about U.S. policy, 51% of respondents were very hopeful or somewhat hopeful about Obama's plans for the Middle East. "People want to fall in love with him, they want to believe in him, they want to embrace him," says Shibley Telhami, principal investigator for the 2009 Annual Arab Public Opinion Survey conducted by the University of Maryland with Zogby International. "Expectations are getting high." (See Cairo getting ready for Obama.)
Obama will win some praise simply for showing up in Cairo, the largest Arab metropolis (pop. 17 million) his address at Cairo University in the heart of the 1,000-year-old city is likely to produce TV images not of the anti-American flag burners of recent years but of a relaxed, amiable U.S. President speaking to applauding, smiling young Egyptians. His calculated reaching out to the Muslim world began in his Inaugural Address, when he said that the U.S. sought "a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect." While Obama's conciliatory tone is welcome, some are giving him the benefit of the doubt simply because of his Muslim family roots and Muslim middle name, Hussein. (See pictures from Obama's recent European trip.)
There have been positive reviews in the region for some of Obama's initial steps in office, such as ordering the closure of the prison at Guantánamo, moving to withdraw troops from Iraq and calling for resumption of Arab-Israeli peace negotiations. He has also improved strained relations with moderate Arab leaders, and started reversing U.S. efforts to isolate antagonists such as Iran and Syria. "Obama is certainly different from Bush," Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak raved recently. "Obama is a man who conducts business with a great deal of accuracy, realism and rationality." The prospect of a warm Obama-Arab embrace is already worrying some in Israel, where a recent poll showed merely 31% believed that Obama was pro-Israel. After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's recent talks with Obama in Washington, the leading Israeli daily Ma'ariv quoted a senior Israeli political source saying, "Israel is no longer America's favorite son." (See pictures of Islam's soft revolution.)
Obama's positive reception in the Arab world could certainly assist him, at least in the short term, with his various initiatives aimed at repairing American interests in the region. "There is a tremendous rift between America and the Middle East because of the last eight years," says Nabil Fahmy, former Egyptian ambassador to the U.S. "There are three major crises: Afghanistan, Iraq and the Arab-Israeli conflict. To achieve progress, you have to have regional players help you with these things."
But Obama could be sowing the seeds for greater disillusionment, given the difficulty he will encounter in fulfilling the expectations he has raised. Obama will be even more popular among Arabs if he pressures Israel, but if Netanyahu's new right-wing government fails to budge, or if Palestinian attacks on Israel continue, the President risks a backlash from Israel's many supporters on Capitol Hill. A second tricky issue is democracy. If Obama doesn't push for greater freedom in the Middle East, he'll upset the region's embattled democracy activists. If he pushes for political change, he'll undermine the Arab autocrats on whose support his hopes for a comprehensive peace with Israel rest.
Iran may be another issue that damns Obama either way. If he's too aggressive on the issue of the Islamic Republic's nuclear program, the Muslim street will view him as doing Israel's bidding and upholding double standards by declining to criticize Israel's suspected nuclear arsenal. If he's too conciliatory toward Tehran, Arab autocrats and Israel will sound the alarm about a Persian menace. "Obama is plainly trying to alter the course of the ship of state," says David Welch, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt. "But the degree of policy difference from one Administration to another is not that considerable. You can have repackaging or readjustments, but under Republicans or Democrats, there has been a fairly consistent focus on certain fundamentals."
More of the same is clearly not what Arabs want to hear. The recent opinion survey in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates showed that while the Middle East is surprisingly hopeful about Obama, skepticism about America remains high. Only 18% had a positive view of the U.S., while 77% said they held a very or somewhat unfavorable view of the U.S.
The message is clear: Arabs are giving Obama a chance, but they expect a substantial change of direction from the U.S. "If he comes to say, 'We respect Islam, America is not against you,' then it's just rhetoric," says Hala Mustafa, editor of the Arabic journal Democracy, published in Cairo. "To bridge the gap, you need to change some policies and play a more active role in solving Middle East problems. He will be brave if he stresses the real challenges facing us today, like the need for freedom, tolerance, respect for individual rights, women's rights and diversity." Two years ago, few would have given Obama much of a chance of winning the White House, so he clearly is an exceptional politician. He'll certainly have to be in order to win over the Arab world, and keep it on America's side.