Arab World Saw Obama's Speech As Historic

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses an audience at the Cairo University in Cairo, Egypt Thursday, June 4, 2009.
AP Photo/Ben Curtis
When I climbed into the battered old taxi in Cairo, and tried to tell my aged driver who spoke no English that I needed to go to Cairo University, I didn't really know if it was going to work out.

But I need not have worried.

His weathered face broke into a huge, yellowing smile: "Obama , Obama" he yelled at me. And I knew I was going to make it to the live position.

As we screamed around corners, dodging and weaving through lanes of traffic, my driver kept kissing his fingers and raising his hand in a gesture of apparent adoration while he repeated over and over, "Obama, Obama good". Every so often he would turn and look at me as he did it, and I didn't even care that he wasn't looking ahead as we roared through the city. I guess I'm just so used to mad driving I've learned to think of other things - and right then I was occupied with Obama's speech and what it meant to people like my driver.

It's been evident from the day I arrived in Egypt last week, that Obama's personal popularity is unprecedented for an American President in this part of the world. Although many people have commented that coming after George Bush, it wasn't hard to impress the Arab world. The former President was so hated here and did so much damage to America's image in the Muslim world, that it will take a lot to overcome.

Many here believe it will take a Barack Hussein Obama.

They may not think one man can fix it all overnight. But they do have huge expectations and want to see him go much further than he already has.

What disappointed people in the Middle East was the fact that Mr. Obama did not condemn the Israeli government for violence against the Palestinians, but yet he lashed out at Palestinians for launching rockets at sleeping children and blowing up old women on buses.

Most Muslims, especially on the Arab Street, see the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank as illegal - and the Palestinian's armed struggle as legitimate resistance. The President risked much credibility with Muslims by failing to address the issue of state-sponsored Israeli action against the Palestinian people, but he won much praise for being honest and not just pandering to popular Islamic views.

A political science professor told me she appreciated the fact that Mr. Obama said he was going to say what is normally only said "behind closed doors." She said: "I didn't agree with what he said but I liked that he didn't try to hide."

That was a critical part of Mr. Obama's appeal - most people here believed him. He came across as honest and sincere, reaching out with respect. This alone, many in Cairo said, is such a dramatic change from the Bush years that it is in itself a new beginning.

Respect goes a long way in this part of the world. And by quoting from the Islamic Holy book, the Koran, Mr. Obama showed he knows that.

Not to mention pointing out his middle name "Hussein". One woman turned to me as she heard this during the speech and said this was "very good!"

"It makes him one of us," she told me.

So there was great excitement about President Obama's visit to Cairo. I was mobbed on the street when I tried to talk to people in a coffee shop about the speech. It wasn't a hostile crowd - on the contrary they told me over and over that "Obama is fantastic" and "we welcome him in Egypt."

One man even kept repeating that after he saw Mr. Obama today he would be ready to die. That would be enough for him to end all his days, completely satisfied. I promised to pass it on to the president - such commitment seemed to me deserving of some small promise at least.

The really interesting part of this trip to me was not only the obvious. It's the fact that Osama Bin Laden issued an audio tape condemning the Pakistani government operation in Swat Valley and America's role in pressing for that, at the same time as Mr. Obama made this successful foray into the hearts of Muslims around the world.

Mr. Obama threatens Bin Laden's al Qaeda in a way Bush never could. He makes the information war extremely difficult for al Qaeda, for the first time really. It was too easy when President Bush was alienating Muslims across the globe and Arab hearts were filled with hatred for the U.S. government. It was too easy and they won outright. The propaganda arena belong to them. No contest.

Now you have an American president who proves not all Americans hate Islam. He's living proof not all Americans are arrogant or treat other cultures without respect. And on top of that, they like many of his policies - opposing the invasion of Iraq, pulling US troops out that country, ending torture, closing Guantanamo Bay. These are the dark clouds that have been lingering over the U.S.-Muslim relationship for the past eight years and helped bring it to such a low point.

Now you have an American President whose middle name is Hussein, and he happens to be the first black President, too. They make a big deal of that over here, always saying it like the momentous achievement that it is. But I find that somewhat ironic when the same newspapers covering his visit also have a small mention of another unarmed African immigrant shot and killed by Egyptian border police. Apparently not too many people are worried about that here - and it happens all the time.

African immigrants who are poorly treated in Egypt often try to cross into Israel. The Israelis don't want them and have told the Egyptian government not to let them cross the border. So they're shot and killed. Dozens of them died this way last year. And no one really seems to care.

That's another problem for Mr. Obama. Egypt under President Hosni Mubarak is hardly a model for the democracy and human rights and freedoms the U.S. is supposed to represent.

A young Egyptian man who listened to the speech today told me with relief that it had gone further than he expected on the issue of democracy. He and many other activists in Cairo feared Obama's administration was going to tread softly on democracy in public because of the unpopular way it was promoted by the U.S. for the past few years.

Instead, he and others including the Egyptian opposition leader, Ayman Nour, a tireless advocate for democracy who has been jailed by the Egyptian government, said they were surprised. Mr. Obama had not shied away from the issue, in spite of the fact that the government who welcomed him as their guest today is one of those he was criticizing in his speech.

Much was made about the venue. Cairo University has a quarter of a million students, and it's over a 100 years old, and famous for the list of Arab leaders and thinkers who have passed through its doors over the last century. Yasser Arafat was a student there. And no American President has ever made a major speech there.

It was a first. And to Muslims across the world, it was historic.

A taxi driver here told me that he would "tell children about this day."

"Your children?" I asked him.

"No," he responded. "All children."

  • Lara Logan

    Lara Logan's bold, award-winning reporting from war zones has earned her a prominent spot among the world's best foreign correspondents. Logan began contributing to 60 Minutes in 2005.