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Mixed Reaction In Cairo To Obama Speech

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And we're going to hear some reaction now from those in the audience and beyond. NPR's Deborah Amos, reports from Cairo.

DEBORAH AMOS: The president got a standing ovation at Cairo University, as he wrapped up his speech. Someone yelled we love you, and then the only departure from his prepared remarks, the president said thank you.

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: Outside the hall, the students took group photos to mark the event. After such high expectations and fears that the president would disappoint, Egyptians welcome Mr. Obama's outrage, says Mahmoud Abaza, the head of the Wafd, Egypt's oldest political party.

Mr. MAHMOUD ABAZA (Wafd): I think he was calling for a new start. As a start, I think it's a success.

AMOS: The rousing speech in the heart of the Arab world was punctuated with quotations from the Quran. The audience gasped then wildly applauded when Mr. Obama said he was bringing greetings of peace from American Muslims. And he used an Arabic phrase asalaam aleikum, peace be upon you, to address the audience. Nana Maharah(ph), a political science major and a skeptic before the speech, said she was won over by the president's openness to Islam.

Ms. NANA MAHARAH (Major, Political Science): It was significant to use peace upon Mohammad, salaam aleikum, a lot of parts from Quran. It means for us that it's a new approach and he specially understands where are we coming from.

AMOS: Maharah say she heard in the speech a sense of shared values, including a repudiation of repressive regimes in the region.

Ms. MAHARAH: Hip criticism to oppressive regimes really touched my heart because we suffer from it.

AMOS: But her views were not shared by some of the dissidents and activists in the audience at the invitation of the White House. Mahmoud Salem, an Egyptian blogger known as Sand Monkey, give the president's speech high marks for opening a dialogue but on the president's political promises, he was more reserved.

Mr. MAHMOOD SALEM (Blogger): All in all, in terms of a speech, great speech, great delivery. In terms of substance, especially human rights for example, he's not really going to be hammering on it because it was good diplomatic relations.

AMOS: Across the political spectrum today similar reactions to the speech: A sense that the president brought a dramatic change in tone, but judgments are still reserved on the hard issues that separate American foreign policy from Arab and Muslim interests. In one of the many open letters before the president's visit, a columnist reminded Mr. Obama that to win hearts, he had to win minds first. Publisher Hishan Kasam, part of Egypt's opposition movement noted that the president touched on all the issues that are important without giving specific details on how to deal with them.

Mr. HISHAN KASAM (Publisher): It's a declaration of good will. But it's not a policy speech. There is very little to hold Obama accountable too in the future on anything he said.

AMOS: Deeds not words is an often repeated phrase, says Kasam. This was one speech, an important one, but more must follow to engage the country.

Mr. KASAM: The Egyptian state yeah, I mean, you know, tomorrow everybody is going to be back to business. I mean this is not engaging like 95 percent of the Egyptian population. There was just the hype, the excitement. But tomorrow it's business as usual.

AMOS: Today, no one in Cairo could miss that President Barack Obama was in town. Cairo's main streets were nearly empty until nightfall, as police fanned out across the city for Obama's address and his visit to a medieval mosque and then the pyramids. A headline in Ad-Dastur, an opposition newspaper, captured the aggravation of ordinary Egyptians. Today Obama visits Egypt, after evacuating it of Egyptians.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Deborah Amos
Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.