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Waiting For Obama In Cairo

“Obama, he is for peace. Bush, he loves war,” says Ahmed, a friendly young Cairo store clerk. I met Ahmed on my first night here in Egypt's capital, where I've arrived a few days ahead of Barack Obama’s speech here on Thursday.

Ahmed's take was a cartoonish one, from a merchant perhaps eager to please an American visitor. Egyptian public opinion is more complicated. A Zogby poll shows wide unhappiness here with the U.S. generally but also Obama's early presidency--three quarters of Egyptians disapprove of Obama's performance thus so far. That's undoubtedly in part about Obama's seemingly tacit approval of Israel's Gaza offensive last winter. The question is whether Obama can put a dent in that bitterness when he speaks from Cairo University this week. It's certainly possible that the power of Obama's speech alone will dazzle Egypt and the wider Muslim world (although, as Martin Indyk warns, he should take care not to speak as though all Muslims are Arabs).

Despite Ahmed's cheery words, I suspect what will matter here is deeds and not words. For the moment, Obama is not expected to announce any substantial new policy changes. But when it comes to Egypt, he has already set a tone. Obama has declined to make America's $1.8 billion in foreign aid to Egypt (our second-largest recipient) conditional on political and human-rights reform, and aid specifically for democratic programs has been slashed by more than half, from $55 million to $20 million. Hillary Clinton has spoken cautiously about Egypt's severe political repression. And Obama will arrive just days after one of the country's main political opposition figures, with whom I am hoping to meet tomorrow, claims he was attacked on the street with a flaming substance.

As James Traub noted yesterday, Obama the idealist is looking very much like Obama the realist. His adminstration has told China not to sweat human rights. Democracy in Afghanistan is not a cause for which America will fight, and Hosni Mubarak--ally of Israel and increasing bulwark against Iran--will apparently be spared too many inconvenient questions about his police state. To be sure, this is at least a defensible global posture for a militarily and economically weakened United States that confronts massive problems around the world. The interesting question is whether Obama can be honest about these tradeoffs in his speech on Thursday, and explain to people like Ahmed that the peace Obama wants truly requires them.

[Photo shows Mecca direction guide in Cairo hotel room clothing drawer]

--Michael Crowley