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Middle East

The Disappearing Spring

Obama has held up Tunisia and Egypt as examples for change in the Middle East. The money he's prepared to pour into both countries is a clear incentive to others - cynics would call it a bribe – to take the path to democracy, to stop the violent oppression of fair political protest.
Last modified: 20 May 2011 16:06
Photo by EPA

In the coffee shops and the cafes, there was no great desire to hear what President Barack Obama had to say; no rush to turn up the volume when he appeared.

The people of Cairo know he's an important figure. They know the power and influence he wields. But they also know that he came to Cairo two years ago to make his last major speech on the Middle East.

In the grand surroundings of the main hall at Cairo University, with its impressive, ornate dome, he tried to hit the reset button on America's relations with the Muslim world. He insisted Washington would support "elected, peaceful governments".

And there was talk of greater freedom, that people across the region would have the "freedom to live as you choose".

Yet the people here remember, as thousands gathered in the squares across the country calling for change, the American president supported his Egyptian counterpart until the tide of history became too big to oppose. They believe that only when faced with the obvious did the US abandon its interests and talk about its ideals.

Mohammed Fouad sat in the café, puffing on his souka, occasionally casting an eye to the screen as Obama's speech was beamed to a near empty room.

"The Middle East should be left alone to deal with its own problems without American interference. It's better for them and it's better for us," he says dismissively.

It may be a sentiment that is echoed by many, but the reality is Egypt needs America's help financially to recover from the effects of the revolution.

The weather here is getting warmer, with a heat that sits on the shoulders and sucks the energy. It marks the end of the high season for tourists. The revolution, the unrest in Egypt, has kept many away this year. One American company revealed recently it cancelled 90 per cent of its vacations to here. It's estimated that the industry, which employs thousands, has lost more than $2bn.

America will help. Obama says $1bn in debt will be wiped out: "We do not want a democratic Egypt to be saddled by the debts of its past."  The US will also create a $1bn fund to create enterprise and initiative in the business sector. 

Egypt's finance minister, Samir Radwan, says such support is welcomed: "It will impact on the budget deficit which has grown since the revolution." 

And in a nod to the problems faced by the country's bloated public sector he welcomed the additional billion "because we want the young people to find employment outside the government".  

Abdulrahman Mustafa is one of those who hopes his future will not be tied to the government. Bright and articulate, the fourth-year medical student at Cairo University was involved in the pro-democracy protests that brought down the 30 year rule of Hosni Mubarak.

He wanted Obama to admit the US got it wrong, when it supported the previous regime.

"Mubarak said if he left, there would be problems, there would be terror; that it would be very dangerous," Mustafa said.

"Look, that has not happened. And maybe he should acknowledge that. We do not forget that the support of the US government was with Mubarak until his last days. Only then did they say to him you have to go. His speech today was very disappointing. We would like him to consider Egypt as a partner, not something that can be led or controlled."

Obama has held up Tunisia and Egypt as examples for change in the Middle East. The money he's prepared to pour into both countries is a clear incentive to others - cynics would call it a bribe – to take the path to democracy, to stop the violent oppression of fair political protest. 

He hopes others will turn to democracy and do it quickly because without them, the Arab spring could be short lived and the winter soon upon us.