President Obama is scheduled to make an address Thursday, in Cairo, directed at the “Muslim world” (as many have noted, a rather unfortunate locution, as it dismisses tremendous diversity under an all-encompassing umbrella). The site is both unfortunate and highly symbolic.
Unfortunate, in that Obama has selected as the venue for this address a country whose repressive leadership under President Hosni Mubarak epitomizes in the eyes of many across the Middle East one of the evils that have retarded the advance of democracy and human rights across the region. By making his address from there, Obama will be seen as at least implicitly sanctifying, rather than sanctioning, the US’s embrace of that regime. Many will be watching hopefully for any phraseology censuring that regime, but one of the central and most enduring values of traditional Arab society is hospitality: that it be offered to a guest, and that when it is offered, the guest accept it graciously and uncritically. Therefore, any criticism that Obama expresses will have to be sheathed in the most velvetized of gloves.
Symbolic, in that since the mid-10th century CE, Cairo has been one of the great political and cultural capitals of the Arab world (another umbrella concept, admittedly) – and the region of what became Cairo included the most ancient of Egyptian capitals, Memphis, founded around 3000 BCE by (according to ancient Egyptian legend) the unifier king known as Menes. The pyramids at Giza, which now lie within the confines of Cairo, were once one of several huge royal cemeteries devoted to Egypt’s earliest rulers. In 1798, on the eve of the Battle of the Pyramids, which ensured the French conquest (albeit a temporary one) of Egypt, Napoleon Bonaparte admonished his soldiers that thousands of years of history were looking down upon them.
Now, more than two centuries later, Mr. Obama would do well to take heed of Napoleon’s admonition. For, depending on what he says, his address may be about to assume for future generations the status of a major episode, even a turning point, in “histories” : the “(Middle) East” vs. the “West,” Israel vs. the Arab world, Jewish Israelis vs. Muslim and Christian Palestinian Arabs, and, within the United States, those who assume its prerogative of global hegemony as a righteous, militarized “Christian nation” vs. those who advocate its example of global leadership as a largely secular, tolerant democracy. These histories are, of course, hardly segregated from each other. Rather, they are intertwined – or perhaps, nestled within each other, like a series of Russian dolls. The scores of books and articles produced on each of them over just the last few years are too numerous to catalog here. But the vast majority of them show that those histories have been drenched in tension, conflict, and all too often, death, destruction, and the continual ramping-up of distrust and hatred.
Ever since his election – indeed, even during the months that led up to it – a mountain of expectation has been piled upon Mr. Obama’s shoulders by those who deeply hope that he might have an important impact on all these histories. Already, in some of his actions, he has moved to inaugurate a new era of US global outreach and partnership – specifically, in both improving international relations and combating global warming. It is perhaps too much to ask that Mr. Obama’s upcoming speech in Cairo will mark a turning point in each of the histories I’ve noted above. But seldom in recent memory has one man positioned himself so well to pull the planet away from the precipice at whose edge his predecessor’s policies poised it.
John Robertson is a professor of Middle East history at Central Michigan University and has his own blog, Chippshots.