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Obama's Middle East challenge: part I

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With President Obama’s ground-breaking speech in Cairo and the turbulent Iranian election, the Middle East is witnessing a quickening tempo of history. In the first of this two-part series on Obama’s Middle East challenge, Middle Eastern Studies professor Fawaz A. Gerges analyzes Obama’s speech, which he thinks could prove to be a pivotal moment in Middle East politics. At the least, it shows a new US empathy for the plight of the Palestinians and a new stance toward the Israelis not shown before by an American president. Besides recognizing the need for a Palestinian state and calling for an end to Israeli settlements, Obama’s speech had additional historical significance. Egypt, a center of Islamic learning, is also the Arab world’s most populous autocratically-ruled country and home to the most powerful Islamist organization – the Muslim Brotherhood – thus serving as a metaphor for the region. Thus delivering his speech in Egypt, Obama was in effect speaking to the entire Middle East. Of great importance too, is the fact that the speech seemed to have thawed the cold, hostile feelings of at least some jihadists and Islamists toward the US. This suggests peace in the Middle East may be achievable. Of course, whether Obama’s soft touch and soft power can effect change remains to be seen. As Gerges notes, now is the time for Obama to expend some political currency to deliver on the new promise, and not allow bin Laden to reignite his incendiary campaign.

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