Posted by: heatherbritt | August 3, 2009

On Attending President Obama’s Speech to the Muslim World


I was fortunate enough to attend President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo on June 4, 2009.

In early May, soon after the President’s speech was announced, a friend wrote excitedly to ask whether I’d like to attend. Democrats Abroad might be able to get us tickets.

You bet I wanted to go. As an American who has lived and worked in the Arab world for the better part of my adult life, the last eight years have been frustrating, when they weren’t downright embarrassing. I was still pinching myself that a man I actually admired was occupying the White House.

Now, President Obama was promising a new beginning for US foreign policy in the region. I am well aware of the US domestic political constellation that shapes foreign policy in the Middle East. And I understand quite clearly that there is no magic wand for Palestine or Iraq, two of the tragedies most important to people here.

Still, my hopeful heart overtook my head and I couldn’t help but feel giddy as the day of the speech approached. It was like bringing a new boyfriend home to meet the parents – I hoped he would make me proud and that my Arab friends and neighbors would see why he had swept me off my political feet.

I cleared my calendar, and checked my email regularly, but the prospect of attending a speech by our new President was still like a pretty party balloon, lovely to look at but just out of reach. We waited anxiously and sent excited emails back and forth when Democrats Abroad asked us to send a scan of our passports for vetting.

On 2 June, less than 36 hours before the door was to open for President Obama’s speech, the US embassy sent an e-mail with instructions to call in the morning and confirm arrangements for picking up our invitations. The formal invitation from the event’s hosts arrived at 10:41pm.  


Cairo Closes Down

On the day of the President’s visit, Cairo, a bustling city of almost 20 million, was effectively shut down. Universities, schools, offices, shops were closed. Even roads were closed. Neighborhoods near venues on the President’s route experienced the tightest restrictions. Residents were visited by police in the days leading up to the speech; the police examined their identity cards and instructed them to stay indoors with the blinds closed on the day of the Presidential visit.

My friend and I prepared ourselves for the possibility that we might have to walk a portion of the way in to the event venue at Cairo University. I selected my wardrobe with this in mind. “Do not bring bags” the invitation instructed. Are purses allowed? How can I spend a day with nothing but what can fit in my pockets? I worked with this scenario for a couple trials, before deciding that a small purse would probably be allowed. I packed lightly, but with the long wait in mind.

Because of the travel restrictions, I had booked a special taxi to take us from the 2 ½ miles from our Zamalek neighborhood to Cairo University, the 100-year old educational institution hosting the President’s speech. When the driver arrived, I gave him the Arabic instructions outlining road closures and NO-GO times. He shook his head, doubtful we could actually get to Cairo University, but he was willing to try.

Despite our fears, the ride to Cairo University was a breeze, and almost traffic-free. Policemen were posted everywhere. On the main roads leading to the speech venue, policemen were stationed every 50 meters with plainclothesmen skulking around with their walky-talkies nearby. We whizzed along the Nile and arrived at the gates of the University in less than 15 minutes.

Obama in Cairo! 008The domed Grand Hall and gardens were still quiet. Outside the gates, a rather squat Pharonic obelisk dominated the square where Egyptian security and the camera-necklaced media mingled in equal numbers. Metal detector doors and a portable machine in a little van for bags had been set in front of the ornate iron gates. Members of the press were already being processed for entry. We had an hour to wait before the doors would be open to invitees at 10:00.

A woman with a bullhorn and an American accent led a skeleton protest against the war on Gaza. She was insisting that Obama should visit Gaza to witness Israeli war crimes while two others held a banner in Arabic and English. It was an extremely unusual sight, given the current Egyptian regime’s predilection for jailing and otherwise silencing peaceful protesters. Had the U.S. authorities asked to allow the protest, we wondered? Had the regime allowed it because the protesters were foreigners?

The sun was already quite strong and the prospect of waiting an hour at the gates was wilting. We decided to have tea nearby. We returned an hour later and just managed to slip in before a busload of Americans formed a long queue. We threw our bags on the scan machine belt, showed our invitations and passports, and were waved in.

Waiting for the President

Once up the steps of the hall and inside the doors, we are directed through another row of metal detectors and then past a line of stone-faced security men. At the auditorium door, tickets and IDs were checked again, and some attendees were directed towards the balcony. A veiled woman stepped forward to welcome us, her excitement and pleasure obvious. “Ambassador?” she asks. “No. Democrats Abroad.” She smiled broadly and ushered us into the main floor as if Dems Abroad entitled one to a better seat than an ambassador.

The auditorium was already quite full but we selected seats on the right near the side entrance. The stage was very simply set: An unadorned wooden podium in the center, flanked by Egyptian and American flags on either side. The pale gray transparent plates of the teleprompter were the only other objects in the field of vision. The press had taken up key positions – center rows of the first balcony and cameras on either side. Periodically, someone came out to conduct sound checks from the podium. We settled in to wait.

Getting to know our neighbors was one of the best parts of the whole event. On our right was a young woman, veiled, and judging by her dress, middle-class. She was unusual in a crowd of mostly prestigious men. She admitted to studying at Cairo University for a masters in the social sciences, and having a passionate interest in the Islamic architecture of Cairo. As a hobby, she was writing a book to share with friends and young people to help them appreciate the sites around them.

On my left was an American-educated university professor who had also served as a cultural attaché in Egypt’s London embassy. He had considered staying home with his family, but his wife insisted that he attend this historic event. We shared a laugh when he reported that his ten-year old son had mischievously asked his father whether the audience members would be allowed to wear their shoes or would the guards require them to be left outside the auditorium.

Our neighbors helped us to read the audience, pointing out the well-known individuals which populated the auditorium. My neighbor exclaimed, “The past, current and future leadership of Egypt in all fields is here. From politics to the arts, commerce and literature. Everyone!”

Even the opposition seemed well represented. A friend confirmed later that the White House had proposed a guest list that covered the entire political spectrum. The Egyptian government didn’t dare to make a single revision, said my friend. Even the Muslim Brotherhood was represented by its elected members of parliament. Several well known dissidents, one just released from prison, were also in attendance.

Nearby, a popular TV talk show host accepted well-wishers graciously, and next to him a female member of parliament chatted with a collection of well-dressed ladies. In the back, a gaggle of sun-glassed movie stars and popular singers dressed with stereotypical flair greeted one another noisily. Two chairs to our right sat the editor of a major daily newspaper. “He speaks with Mubarak every day. He’s a very powerful man.”

Not just a veritable “Who’s Who” of Egyptian society, but foreign dignitaries were in attendance as well. In front of me sat two Israelis from West Jerusalem, and next to them a man whom I guessed was Indonesian read Dreams of My Father in English. We spotted a group of white-robed foreign sheikhs, and three Moroccan students from al-Azhar University in their traditional garb. All along the central bisecting row, African dignitaries sat in their bright colored traditional dress – a belt of color on a predominantly grey wool audience. A tall, turbaned Sudanese man with a long staff and quiet face arrested my attention with his majestic bearing. He wore a long tunic and vest of plain cotton, and looked as if he might have just walked out of the vast Sudanese deserts.

With so much time on our hands, and bound together by the excitement of moment, we talked with our neighbors. I asked the professor what he expected from the speech. He replied that his expectations were modest. “It’s just a speech.” I agreed, and took the conversation one step further. The real issues of importance in the region would take time and considerable diplomacy to unravel. My neighbor nodded. “Yes, better not to make grand gestures with words, but to work slowly.” As we talked, we found that we shared a common understanding of the situation. After many years of differences and difficulties between the region and the US, it would take time and hard work to make progress. Actions are more important than words. But my neighbor went farther. “The President’s hands are tied. We don’t want him to say too much. We are afraid for him. Look what happened to President Kennedy.”

We also discussed the news that President Mubarak did not meet Obama at the airport, but welcomed him instead at the door of the Presidential Palace. Here in the Arab world, going out to greet one’s visitor is an important ritual of hospitality. The Arabic language has a special word for it and the newspapers daily report who greeted who. Nor was Mubarak expected to attend the speech; his son would be coming instead. Was there some political significance in this? Or was Mubarak’s behavior due to his grief over the recent tragic death of his grandson?

After we had been in the auditorium over an hour, a man came out on stage and placed the Presidential seal on the front of the podium. That simple gesture transformed the room. My heart stopped.

As the time for the President’s arrival drew closer, the most prestigious invitees arrived. Members of the White House staff and Cairo University’s Board of Trustees entered from the door to our immediate right and took their places in the box seats. Boutros Boutros Ghali, the former Secretary General of the United Nations, entered with his nephew, the Egyptian Minister of Finance. Then Gamal Mubarak, the heir apparent to the Mubarak regime, made his way to the front. We knew that President Obama’s entrance was imminent when both the Egyptian head of intelligence and the head of security entered the auditorium and conferred with their staff.

Without warning, the side door opened and a group of dark suited men entered the room. The suits parted and our own Secretary of State emerged. Hillary Clinton was radiant in a golden-hued suit of raw silk and her fair hair and skin seemed to glow. She seemed genuinely thrilled to be in that room. She passed not more than six feet away from my seat and made her way to the front of the auditorium, suits in tow.

Only a few minutes later, the President walked out on the stage. He entered from the right without announcement, fuss or body guards. For an instant, he seemed a bit small in that big space, but he lifted his hand in greeting and the crowd erupted with applause. He instantly filled the room. When he began to speak you could feel every ear straining to take in his words.

A Warm Reception

AudienceFrom the very beginning, I could tell that the President was being warmly received. The audience applauded often and vigorously. On at least two occasions, someone shouted out “We love you!” in heavily accented English. I was stunned to observe my neighbor dabbing his eyes on several occasions. A friend of mine, who sat with the press, later told me that he also witnessed a well-known journalist crying during the speech. This particular journalist is fair-minded but openly critical of US foreign policy in the region. What could have brought this man and others to tears?

What can one speech do in light of tensions that that have roots so far back in history, and that span such a wide swath of endeavors? For eight long years, Arabs and Muslims have felt nothing but arrogance, insults and ignorance from the White House. In contrast, Obama greeted his listeners in their own idiom, and immediately acknowledged that colonialism denied the rights and aspirations of many Muslims. Suddenly, we were in very different territory. After such a hurtful time, the President’s words had a healing effect. In essence, the people in that room heard: I know you as Muslims and respect you. We have many things in common. There are some important challenges that we need to work on. Let’s work together.

Few Americans see our country as smugly parading a God-given right to rule the world. They don’t know what it is to be on the receiving side of missiles or have foreign institutions “restructure” their economies. Most of the world is not so enamored of American superpower-dom. Those few Americans who live, not just vacation, outside the US border come to see this. Yet here was the US President, acknowledging the existence of other worlds and other worldviews. The President’s words melted our hearts.

Having set the tone, straight away the President plunged into the topic most likely to prompt emotional responses from his listeners — Palestine. Has ever a situation generated such powerful emotions and such impotent action?

The US stance for more than a decade has been that Palestinians must abandon violence and Israelis must stop building new settlements. But this is no even-handed solution, no balanced give-and-take for anyone living in the area. The sheer number of casualties from Israel’s recent military operations in Gaza alone, make it ludicrous to Palestinians that they are the ones who must give up violence.

Yet the President passed over this asymmetry, in describing the situation as a stalemate that can only be resolved through a two-state solution. And while he clearly described a humanitarian crisis in Gaza and lack of opportunity in the West Bank, he only alluded to the cause of these unfortunate conditions. There was no call to end the occupation.

Still, the President acknowledged the Palestinian suffering and legitimate aspirations for a homeland. And he pledged to personally pursue a resolution. Having starved for hope so long, the audience welcomed these crumbs.

Another emotional outburst came from members of the Egyptian opposition who took encouragement from the President’s words on democracy. Several times during his talk, the President was interrupted by applause, but with the statement “elections alone do not make true democracy” one man could not contain himself and shouted “Barack Obama we love you!”

Obama waving to the crowd 2When the speech was over, the President exited the stage waving while the crowd gave him an emotional ovation. For one instant, the audience held its collective breathe — then exhaled. We returned to ourselves, picked up our things, and began to make our exit.

The religious dignitaries who had been seated near the stage, filed up the aisle and out the side door for an audience with the President. My friend and I stood and watched as they passed about a yard away. There was a large delegation of black-robed clerics from Al-Azhar, the Sunni world’s center of learning and co-hosts of the event. The sheikhs were followed by a large Coptic contingent led by the elderly Pope, Baba Shanouda, leaning on his crosier. I spotted the Greek Orthodox patriarch and a cardinal or two in the mix. Finally, Hillary who had been detained by well wishers, passed up the aisle and out the door. We turned to go.

Before leaving, I shook hands with my neighbor. “What did you think of the speech?” I asked. “He does not want war. It is a good start.”

Back on the Street

Outside in the sunshine, the audience seemed reluctant to disburse. The media had crowded in to interview dignitaries on the steps of the hall. Embassy cars with their flags edged their way through the throng. The Gaza protest was still going on at the base of the obelisk. A policeman directed us to a minivan designated to drive invitees to the edge of the security cordon. Then we were back on streets returning to their typical rush and racket.   Obama in Cairo! 038

And how did Obama play on the Cairo street? My doorman gives a clue. The cantankerous Abdulaziz works the night shift, and for the five years that I have lived in the building he has made it clear that he does not approve of me. When I enter, he does not greet me, except with a sneer, and does not help me with my bags or open the elevator door. I get a greeting and a smile once a year at Ramadan, when doormen are traditionally given extra tips in honor of the holiday.

The night of Obama’s speech, when I entered the building, Abdulaziz snapped to attention, stood up and split his face with a smile. “Good evening, ya Doctora! Good evening, ya Doctora!” Not one, but two “Doctoras.” The elevator door was opened for me all week long.

Yes, speech is just talk, and actions speak louder than words. Perhaps the Muslim honeymoon with Obama will be brief. But consider: the honeymoon custom persists across many cultures because it serves a purpose. A marriage takes hard work, and a few sweet words at the beginning can establish the good will necessary to get through the challenges. A little euphoria can be a good thing.

Heather Britt, Cairo, Egypt


  1. Im sure we are all looking forward to more positive changes in the region.

  2. Thanks for sharing the highlights of this speech; after many years of arrogance lets hope action follows the words and its just not rhetoric as positive change is needed in the region as well as in the US

  3. HB, How wonderful to “hear and see” that day thru your eyes. You have made a Democrat at Home proud. And, yes, it was an historic day!

  4. Thank you, Heather–I am so glad I came across this! You are a very gifted writer. I felt as if I were there, as well as pre- and post-speech!

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