You want a tough crowd? Go to Cairo and deliver a speech on Muslims, Jews, terrorism and the possibilities of Mideast peace.
While President Barack Obama received some applause and cheers during his address at Cairo University Thursday, at other times his speech fell flatter than a piece of pita bread.
It was to be expected. According to Juan Cole, a professor of modern Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan, Egypt was always going to be "the toughest room for the president to work" on his current foreign trip. Cole believes that the Egyptian public is "sullen" and distrustful of Obama and American intentions in the Mideast.
That showed. Speaking from a stage that looked like an American movie theater from a bygone era, complete with red velvet drapes and gold tassels, Obama hit all the right notes, but only some of them got the response he wanted.
When Obama quoted the Koran — "As the Holy Koran tells us, ‘Be conscious of God and speak always the truth’ " — or praised Islam — "Throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality" — he got applause.
But other lines, such as when Obama vowed to protect the American people from violent attack, were met with stony silence.
"In Ankara, I made clear that America is not — and never will be — at war with Islam," Obama said. "We will, however, relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security. (Silence from the crowd.) Because we reject the same thing that people of all faiths reject: the killing of innocent men, women, and children. (More silence.) And it is my first duty as president to protect the American people." More silence.
And when the president talked about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America, he was met with only stares from the audience. "But let us be clear," the president said, "al-Qaida killed nearly 3,000 people on that day. The victims were innocent men, women and children from America and many other nations who had done nothing to harm anybody. And yet al-Qaida chose to ruthlessly murder these people, claimed credit for the attack and even now states their determination to kill on a massive scale. They have affiliates in many countries and are trying to expand their reach. These are not opinions to be debated — these are facts to be dealt with."
Egypt is the most populous Arab country in the world (though not the most populous Muslim country, which is Indonesia), and it plays a critical role in shaping Arab policy in the region. Obama’s speech was supposed to be the rhetorical high point of his four-nation trip to the Middle East and Europe. Yet while Obama obviously chose his words with great care, only some of them found a receptive audience.
"I have unequivocally prohibited the use of torture by the United States, and I have ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed by early next year," Obama said to applause and whistles of approval.
But he was met with silence when he said, "The sooner the extremists are isolated and unwelcome in Muslim communities, the sooner we will all be safer."
Similarly, when Obama talked about "America’s strong bonds with Israel" and said that bond "is unbreakable" there was no applause.
Nor was there any applause when, in one of the strongest parts of his speech, Obama stood up to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a Holocaust denier, by saying: "Six million Jews were killed — more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, it ignorant, and it is hateful."
There was no sign of agreement from the audience as Obama went on: "Threatening Israel with destruction — or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews — is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve." This was met by more silence.
The crowd was far more receptive, erupting into applause and shouts, when Obama moved on to the plight of the Palestinian people and said: "So let there be no doubt: The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own."
"The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security," Obama said to applause.
But the lines that followed were met by a vast stillness. "Palestinians must abandon violence," Obama said. "Violence is a dead end. It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered."
Obama was repeatedly interrupted by applause, however, when he said the following: "At the same time, Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel ‘s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop."
Obama was also applauded when he talked about democracy and human rights, singling out women’s rights for special attention. And Obama’s restatement of the Golden Rule — "that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us" — was met warmly, but the words that followed were not. "This truth transcends nations and peoples," Obama said, "a belief that isn’t new; that isn’t black or white or brown; that isn’t Christian, or Muslim or Jew. It’s a belief that pulsed in the cradle of civilization, and that still beats in the heart of billions. It’s a faith in other people, and it’s what brought me here today."
That was written as an applause line, but it didn’t get any.
But when Obama quoted the Koran, the Talmud and the Bible at the end of his speech, he got applause for each.
"The people of the world can live together in peace," Obama concluded. "We know that is God’s vision. Now, that must be our work here on Earth. Thank you. And may God’s peace be upon you."
That got him applause, cheers and a standing ovation.
Obama’s speech was a complex one, and it got a complex reaction. When it comes to speeches, you win some, you lose some, and sometimes you just move on. Obama did all of that in just one speech Thursday.