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Obama speech greeted with skepticism, apathy in Mideast

CAIRO — President Obama's vow that the United States will "stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights" in the Middle East was received with a mix of apathy and skepticism by people in the region who watched the speech Thursday night.

Some said they saw little news or any discernible shift in policy from an administration that has struggled to formulate a coherent response to the wave of popular uprisings roiling the region this spring.

"My hope was for an unqualified apology" for Obama's perceived support of dictators, said Hossam Bahgat, a human rights activist who was among a handful of people who got up from his table to watch the speech at a Cairo cafe. "And I thought only Obama could do that."

Khaled Fahmy, who chairs the history department of American University in Cairo, said he was underwhelmed by the president's words Thursday and remained unconvinced that the speech represented a strong endorsement of democracy.

"Despite all the talk about 'Let's put U.S. values before U.S. interest,' it's been U.S. interests that have been driving U.S. policy" in recent months, said Fahmy.

Many in the region were quick to point out that the president made no mention of Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. ally that has provided troops to Bahraini officials to quell the uprising there.

"Dear U.S., as long as u r allied with tyrannical, hateful, misogynistic Saudi Arabia, how can u expect democratic change to take place here," Egyptian activist Mahmoud Salem wrote on Twitter.

Iraq, which a few years ago was the United States' most complex policy issue in the region, was barely mentioned in the president's speech.

In Benghazi, the Libyan rebels' eastern stronghold, residents said they wished Obama had spoken more about Libya. They wanted to hear stronger words against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and more support from Obama for the revolution.

Obama speech greeted with skepticism, apathy in Mideast 05/19/11 [Last modified: Thursday, May 19, 2011 9:43pm]
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