Another “honeymoon”..Obama and the Arabs..seems to be over

I’d like to re-publish this interesting post coming from who writes on the Shami Hamid, Deputy Director of the Brooking Center in Doha,Huffington Post commenting on why the honeymoon between Arabs and Obama ” is really over now”.

This echoes other comments which recently appeared on The Washington Post and on The Guardian saying more or less the same. And Al Jazeera English’s “LIstening Post” is covering the issue by devoting a whole series of episodes to the topic “Obama and the media”.

When we published the book “Un Hussein alla Casa Bianca” (January 2009) tackling the issue of the “Arab dream” on Obama there was a “realistic skepticism” among the majority of the people and countries we surveyed. After one year of presidency it looks like Faisal Qassem‘s argument in one of the episode of “Al Ittijah al moakis” is going to win over Arabs’ hearths and minds: the problem is not Obama himself as an individual,  the problem is the structure of politics itself. To tell this with Hamid’s words: “.. political structures matter more than individuals – and the American system seems wedded to a fundamentally misguided approach toward the Middle East”.

Obama and the Arab World: The Honeymoon Is Really Over Now

There’s no doubt that there’s been growing Arab disappointment with President Obama, but I’m beginning to sense the disappointment – both understandable and expected – turning into something altogether more worrying. Part of the problem is that many Arabs, including even some Islamists, believed in Obama almost as much as Americans did.

I had lunch the other day with three Western-educated Arab liberals, the kind of people who were optimistic, if cautiously so, not too long ago. The conversation turned to U.S. policy and I felt like I was back in the Bush era, having to muster some kind of defense for my country’s actions. Before, under Bush, I could always say: “wait, the Bush administration doesn’t represent what America and Americans stand for. Don’t worry, we’ll vote him out of office and elect a Democrat…” Now, I’m not exactly sure what, if anything, I should say. I’m not in any mood right now to put positive spin on Obama’s first 12 months or on what Democrats can offer America and the world. The gap between expectation and reality has been so great so as to almost defy characterization.

Arab critics of U.S. policy are likely to draw several conclusions from Obama’s first year in office (whether or not these perceptions are accurate is beside the point. Perceptions matter as long as people think they’re accurate):

  1. That it doesn’t quite matter who the American President is. Obama might be great. He might care about Arabs and their grievances. But political structures matter more than individuals – and the American system seems wedded to a fundamentally misguided approach toward the Middle East.
  2. The election of Obama – with his evident desire to build bridges with the Arab world, not to mention his Muslim family and middle name – was the best possible outcome that Arabs could have hoped for. But, even with the best possible outcome, U.S. policy is still pretty bad.
  3. America has a congenital problem with advancing wonderful soaring rhetoric while, at best, featuring some roundly unimaginative policymaking and, at worst, furthering policies in the Middle East that are downright destructive.
  4. America’s Middle East policy is irredeemable. It is time to stop hoping that America will change.

People hated Bush but, at least their hate seemed to imply a recognition of America’s centrality in the Middle East, and that America, due to its overwhelming influence and power, would have to change in order for the Middle East to change. The anger toward Obama is different in that it is accompanied by a sort of resignation and a coming to terms with an America that appears increasingly beside the point. The United States is in steep decline, so some are saying, and instead of hoping it will change, it might be better (and more realistic) to hope that it falls.

by Shami Hamid , Deputy Director Brookings Doha Center

Follow Shadi Hamid on Twitter:

Al Jazeera centre for studies reviews “Un Hussein alla Casa Bianca. Cosa pensa il mondo arabo di Barack Obama”

Al Jazeera Centre for Studies has published Samar Franco’s review of our book “Un Hussein alla Casa Bianca. Cosa pensa il mondo arabo di Barack Obama. Samar is an Iraqi student who does her phd in Italy so she perfectly speaks and understands Italian. Unfortunately not so many are able to understand our language so we are extremely grateful to Samar for having reviewed the book edited by A. Valeriani and myself (with many important contributions coming from the Arab world as: Jihad N. Fakhreddine, Head of Gallup Middle East; Dr Amer Al Sabaileh, lecturer at the University of Jordan, Department of European languages and studies, and his great students; Professor Larry Pintak,  Director of the Adham Center for Television Journalism at the American University in Cairo and his “Egyptian bloggers go to America” project featuring Sandmonkey and Wael Abbas, among the other very cool Egyptian bloggers).

We are also grateful to Ezzedine Abdelmoula, Head of Media Studies Unit at Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, for having published Samar’s review. And we hope that in the future the book can be translated into Arabic, inshallah! Thanks to everybody who contributed to it.

حسين في البيت الأبيض-صورة باراك أوباما في الإعلام العربي


Il discorso di Obama al Cairo..

A proposito del discorso di Obama di qualche giorno fa al Cairo, questa è l’intervista che ho rilasciato qualche giorno fa a Marcello Foa del Giornale.

Domani l’Ambasciata USA in Italia ospita un interessantissimo dibattito sul tema di Obama e il mondo arabo, a cui è possibile partecipare sia di persona -iscrivendosi ai numeri qui sotto- sia online via chat attraverso il sito ulteriore conferma dell’attenzione del neopresidente USA verso Internet e i suoi utenti.


War on words. Arab media on Obama’s speech in Cairo..and the winner is: Twitter!

Just finished a couple of hours marathon split between TV and computer screen to follow Obamas first live speech addressed to the Muslim world from a Muslim-majority country, Egypt. I’ve tried to follow the speech live on the Internet, through the WhiteHouse’s YouTube channel , following at the same time reactions on Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya.

Of course the two most important Arab media have a very different view on President Obama‘s words, even if it’s not always through words that they express this view. Take Al Jazeera for example:  since the very end of Obama’s talk in Cairo has started broadcasting two different feature stories. First one is what’s now happening in Qalqiliya. While Obama was mentioning Palestine and Israel and  the right of both to leave in peace and  have each one its own state, the reality of Palestine is that Palestinians are killing each others in internal fights. Al Jazeera did not say openly that this internal fights are US (and Europe)’s fault, cause they have never recognised Hamas‘ right to govern Palestine after they won the elections.   But the mere fact of showing the images of what’s happening in Palestine, right after Obama spoke of Palestine and peace, is eloquent and doesnt’ need more words to be said. Also right now, in the news bullettin, Al Jazeera is presenting as headline news Obama’s speech in Cairo as first, and Qalqiliya as second. Do we need more words than those justaxposed images to understand what Al Jazeera thinks about Obama?

On the other hand, Al Arabiya. They have a very different tone from Al Jazeera, quiet and very analytic. However, all the analysis are positive. The sheikh who spoke from Saudi Arabia was very optimistic and labelled Obama’s language as “new language” (at the same time, an Egyptian guest on Al Jazeera was saying exactly the contrary: “same old language” used by Bush, words like “civilization”). Generally speaking, even after Obama’s speech was over, Al Arabiya went on (and it’s still going on) with analysis, collecting different views, etc. Do you remember who was the first Arab channel to get an interview with President Obama? Well, that’s the answer to Al Arabiya’s coverage of today.

Obama mentioned many points in his speech, but which ones are picked up by Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, even if with different angles? Number one, the Palestinian issue. Reasonable. Without finding a solution to this, the other points are useless for the Arabs. Number two,  religious tolerance and minorities. Number three, women issue. Somebody on Al Jazeera also remarked the importance of the educational point mentioned by Obama. Good. But who between them would have stayed a bit more on democracy in the Arab world? Obama mentioned the need to open to democracy, not through wars -but not even with internal coercion-. He was not that bold and didnt’ give the names, but -guess what- this is a whole chapter rather than a simple point for Arab media to open the discussion. I am hoping that at least Faysal Qassem will pick up this point and make a whole episode on this! If not him,  then who?!

While zapping in between Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya during Obama’s speech and trying to pick up the nuances in their coverage, I had hundreds of Tweets pulling out from my computer screen. Including people watching the speech from Israel, giving their opinions, translating things from Hebrew.  Twitters written by Elizrael were very helpful.  Neither Al Jazeera nor Arabiya were ready to pick up this energy and different views coming from Twitter live. Projects like Meedan of live translation Arabic-English and viceversa were helping. People were helping to understand, through Global Voices community. An incredible compilation of information, discussions, live translation, different opinions.

Obama spoke, Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya listened. Twitter (and the Internet) won.

Alliance instead of clash…

Rasmussen has just spoken right now. He thanks the Turkish hospitality and then he addresses very directly to the sad issue he is famous for. Starts by saying that “censorship is the enemy of the dialogue” while “freedom of expression helps long term peaceful development”. A very clear sentence which confirms the positions he used to hold during the crisis. But now he looks softer than he used to be in the past during the cartoon episode: “I condemn any action that offends any religion..I respect Islam and its religious symbols and the feelings of all Muslims..I would never myself depict any religious figure…Likewise I was sad to see that these cartoons were considered by some Muslims like as an offense”.

He adds that, as the new secretary general of Nato, he  will “pay close attention to the religious and cultural sensibility of the diverse communities that live in this various world”. “I consider a personal responsibility for me to carry on the dialogue with Islamic world”, he points out and the crowd’s applause proves everybody welcomes this new approach.

Obama sending greetings to the persians on You Tube for Newroz, Rasmussen personally taking care of the cultural and religious dialogue, what’s happening to the world?

What is clear is that a new era, at least in communication policies, has started. Words like alliance and dialogue are taking crusades and clash places in international communication vocabulary. The entire world is now hoping that this will be not  just a re-styling and a new make up with the same old face.

Istanbul calls upon for an Alliance of Civilization

The Alliance of civilization summit has just started few hours ago in the beautiful city of Istanbul and will last until tomorrow. The programme is plenty of insights and thoughts to fight against the alleged “clash of civilization” that after 9/11 sadly become our way to interpret everything happening in the world. Turkish prime minister Erdogan, with Spanish Jose Luis Zapatero, have strongly supported this Forum. There were rumors that also US president Obama and Rasmussen, the new Nato secretary general, will attend the meeting, probably tonight and at a private dinner. If we think about what George W. Bush has meant for the “clash” of civilization and what he has done to ignite it, Obama’s visit is even more meaningful. Moreover, Rasmussen’s presence is very key, too. The Muslim world has not forgotten what Denmark did with Prophet Mohammed’s cartoon, but since this dark page of intercultural relation Denmark has done a lot to improve its image in the Muslim world, and it’s not a matter of “brand” and image building only. Denmark is organising lots of initiatives towards the dialogue, enhancing its presence in the Muslim world and Rasmussen’s visit could be a step further in a process that is anyway happening everyday thanks to danish institutions and people that are doing a lot. I am just wondering where Italy is in all this (a part from our pm ‘s  phone calls). We used to have a strategic role in the Mediterranean that we are loosing day by day, being too much concentrated on our little political plays. What role will we be playing in this future alliance of civilization?and are we really doing something to enhance our dialogue with the muslim world like Denmark is doing? I don’t think so, unfortunately.

More from the conference later, if they get us translation. I couldn’t understand a word of Erdogan’s speech in Turkey cause they run out of hearing (official reason: more delegates than expected). Since translation is key for dialogue, and there is no alliance of civilization without dialogue, I really hope they will provide us with it soon. Otherwise it risks to be a big event done for the sake of doing a big event, in a nice luxury hotel but without taking care of these “small” details that make the difference.

Al Jazeera, soap opera arabe e Obama al Festival del Cinema Africano di Milano

Per chi di voi si trova in zona Milano, ci sono una serie di appuntamenti “arabi” che vorrei segnalare.

Intanto la 19esima edizione del Festival del Cinema Africano di Milano (23-29 marzo) che inizia oggi. Quest’anno il lavoro fatto da Alessandra Speciale e Annamaria Gallone, direttrici del Festival, è veramente eccezionale, considerando i tempi cupi che stiamo attraversando in Italia, in termini sia di finanziamenti alla cultura che di sensibilità verso le culture “altre”. Il programma è ricchissimo:

Mohamed Challouf ha invece curato, sempre all’interno del Festival, una sezione dedicata ad “Al Jazeera, l’occhio arabo sul mondo” che comprende la proiezione di preziosi documentari e programmi della rete del Qatar.  La sezione ospiterà inoltre una tavola rotonda, curata sempre da Mohamed, alle ore 17 di giovedi 26 marzo presso lo spazio Oberdan, alla quale partecipa anche Ahmad Mahfouz , il direttore del Documentary Channel di Al Jazeera.


Inoltre, verrà proiettata per la prima volta in Italia la soap opera di produzione giordana Al Ijtiyah (l’Invasione) vincitrice dell’Emmy Award 2008.


Sabato 28, sempre all’interno del Festival, presentiamo il nostro libro su Obama:

Sabato 28 marzo – ore 17.00 Libreria FNAC Milano

In occasione della sezione tematica su Al Jazeera, il Festival del Cinema Africano di Milano presenta il libro

“Un Hussein alla Casa Bianca. Cosa pensa il mondo arabo di Barack Obama” (Odoya, 2009)

a cura di Donatella Della Ratta e Augusto Valeriani.

Obama ha passato l’infanzia in un paese musulmano, l’Indonesia, e il suo secondo nome è un nome arabo, Hussein. Può il nuovo presidente americano rappresentare l’interlocutore giusto per il Medio Oriente? Su questo gli arabi e i loro media, dai blog ad Al Jazeera, si interrogano in questi mesi. Gli autori del libro analizzano i media arabi, raccolgono le opinioni di giornalisti, studiosi, uomini d’affari e persone comuni in Medio Oriente e in Usa, offrendoci una prospettiva sui futuri rapporti tra Stati Uniti e mondo arabo.

Alla presenza degli autori e di Khaled Fouad Allam, sociologo e autore dell’introduzione del libro.


Hassan Nasrallah’s speech on Gaza after Israeli attacks

I am currently out in Amman and I am listening to Hassan Nasrallah‘s speech which is “mubasher”, live, from Beirut. He is speaking from a football stadium in Beirut which is overwhelmed by people. Lebanon, as Egypt, today is striking as a form of protest against Israeli attacks over Gaza. Many people are gathering in the stadium and we can see national flags of Lebanon, Palestine and Hezbollah‘s party yellow flags. Songs from Hezbollah’s resistance are heard everywhere. Al Manar, Hezbollah’s Tv channel which is banned in Europe, is broadcasting the event live. Before Hassan Nasrallah’s speech, the cameras were filming only the crowd and the flags and, even when somebody was speaking from the stage preparing the audience for the party leader’s speech, the cameras kept on filming the crowd, never the stage (the voice speaking over the images sometimes is repeating words like”maut li Israil, maut li Amrika”, death to Israel, death to America).

This situation changes only when Hassan Nasrallah appears (no stage supposed to be given to any other but the party leader, this is the message transmitted by the images). He is live, but he is speaking from another place, not from the stage in the stadium. Behind him, we can see that the words “victory to Gaza” are written. When he speaks, the camera is only for him. He has a charismatic power and his speech is in perfect “fusah”, the classical arabic, just very few words in lebanese dialect. He begins the speech in the Islamic way, by greeting in the name of God, and then starts to evocate powerful words that touch the hearth of Muslims everywhere. Like ummah, the islamic community.

Nasrallah evocates the ummah, and reminds the Lebanese people that they are a part of this ummah (which indirectly means that they are directly involved in this tragedy). The message is clear: this is a new 2006 war happening. In fact he reminds them that they know very well the meaning of being attacked, of finding their houses destroyed and their children killed. He states that Gaza is not alone, because it is a part of this bigger ummah. Then he starts his speech, which is more than a speech. It is a real warning against certain powers in the Arab region. In another way, we can say that he is mentioning the “conditions” to be respected by the Lebanese governments, other Arab governments and finally the US if they want Hezbollah to stay out of this (in a military way, i guess).

Here the main points of his speech, which are at the same time the warnings and the conditions he is dictating.

First one is the warning addressed to the Lebanese government and its president Michel Slemain. Nasrallah invites the president to take a bold position in front the other Arab governments in the upcoming Cairo summit of the Arab League. The message to the lebanese government (supported by Western governments) is clear and sounds mostly like a threat. Lebanon should be closer to Gaza and to the Palestianian resistence and be against any other kind of position. He clearly refers to Egypt and the clear position the country took by closing the border with Gaza.

The second warning  is of course addressed to “some Arab governments” as he calls them without mentioning them openly, i.e. the governments that are not doing anything effective but taking a silent position which sounds  more as a silent agreement with Israel for having attacked Gaza- or, at least, nothing that takes a sharp position rather than condemning-. He invites them to a “real reaction” instead of talking just words in a summit. Doesnt’ specify what this “real reaction” should be. But it’s clear that Nasrallah is taking a very tough position, as he did in the past, against many Arab governments, particularly the Gulf (and Saudi Arabia in particular).

Thirdly, he talks directly to America. When he mentions America, he starts to look at the camera as if Obama, the new elected US president, was there to listen. He seems to address directly to him -even if not mention his name- when he says “we want to see your political program, your political position” and adds that he doesn’t care about colors being yellow, red, black (clearly referring to the skin of the new president and the hope that his colour and background could help him understanding better). Again, he adds that he only cares about the political program and he only wants to see results on this topic. He also adds that America keeps on saying that the problem with Hamas is that it is an islamic party with an islamic goal, while at the same time America doesnt care about the islamic party which is ruling in Afghanistan or the one which the Iraqi president is belonging to. He states that the real reason behind American refusal of Hamas is not linked to religion at all. the real reason, which is also the one for refusing Hezbollah’s power in Lebanon, is their political programs that touch the core of US interest in the Middle East. He says that they want a “real independence” for the Arab region, something that is  very much against US interest.

“Gaza will not stay alone in its resistance”, he says. What does this mean? does this mean that Hezbollah will actively support Hamas in Gaza? does this mean a new war like the july 2006 involving Lebanon and Hezbollah?

The fact that Nasrallah, in his rhetoric, is focusing a lot and stressing a lot on the july 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah is a leading factor that helps us to imagine that behind his speech there is also a kind of “war declaration”, or at least a warning. It’s not unlike to imagine such a scenario.

From the media point of view, the coreography of the speech was perfectly suiting Hezbollah’s rhetoric of uniting people together and calling upon resistance against Israel and America who don’t want to see  a united Arab ummah  in the Middle East.

Nasrallah also accused -without telling its name openly- “an Arab Tv ” station of having called him “a demon” and of portraying him in a bad way. It was a kind of “warning”, too, to Al Arabiya television and the country that it represents, Saudi Arabia, which is the first “enemy” of Hezbollah party. This also reminds us to which extent Arab media are still very polarized in a political way and still very partisan, far from representing just a “commercial market” as many of them would wish to be portayed.