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Inauguration Elicits Varied Sentiments in Middle East

January 23, 2009 at 6:25 PM EST
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Reporting from Egypt, Lebanon and Kuwait during the transition to the new presidency, Jeffrey Brown spoke with locals about their reactions to the inauguration of President Barack Obama.
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MARGARET WARNER: Jeff was in Lebanon, Egypt and Kuwait during this time of transition from President Bush to President Obama. Jeff was preparing a number of arts pieces that will be aired later, but he also found time to talk about politics.

And now you’re here to tell us about it, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: Hello, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: How did you find — what did you find with the attitudes about President-elect and then President Obama when you got there?

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, the most extraordinary thing about being there at this time was not only do you have a transition to a new president, but Gaza was happening, and so that made all the attitudes about President Obama and, frankly, about everything in the context of Obama — the context of Gaza, it made everything very concrete. There was nothing abstract about this.

So when I asked people about the prospects — what they thought about Obama, the prospects for him, it was, “What is he doing right now about Gaza? Why isn’t he doing more?”

Remember, there were those days where, as President-elect Obama, he was talking about, we only have one president here, so he wasn’t going to say anything. Well, some people didn’t buy that; they thought he could send a signal, he could do more.

So it was all, what is he doing? What will he do directly to intervene, to somehow do something about what they’re seeing in Gaza and what will they see going forward?

So I heard everything from outright skepticism — “Nothing will change,” “It doesn’t matter who the American president is” — to cautious — and I would emphasize “cautious” — optimism.

We did a lot of interviews. We talked to a lot of people. We would ask people at the end of every interview about President Obama, and we put together a little tape of reactions.

MARGARET WARNER: OK, let’s watch.

In Mid-East, a plurality of opinion

JEFFREY BROWN: Barack Obama.

WOMAN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think of him? And what do you want him to do for -- for here?

WOMAN: We have Clinton. You have Bush. And now Barack Obama. And no one made anything -- I don't think that this president can make anything. He's like the others.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you don't have too much hope for him?

WOMAN: No.

HOSSAN SALEM, Hezbollah supporter (through translator): I hope he will have a wise team around him, and I hope he will be objective and just, not like George Bush, who was thinking about me and only me.

I love the American people. I'm against the government, but not the people.

WALID JUMBLATT, Lebanese politician: What I do want to happen with Obama is what I wanted to happen with Bush, and before him with Clinton, and before him with Bush father, a solution, a state for the Palestinians, the right of return, dismantling of the settlements, and removing the wall, and Jerusalem as a capital for Arabs and Jews.

RAMI KHOURI, American University of Beirut: He talks about talking to your enemies, engaging with people with whom he disagrees. That's a positive sign about getting together, resolving issues peacefully. Those are all positive vibes.

So we'll have to see what happens when he gets into office. This is something that hopefully will happen quickly, because the Middle East is in great danger right now, and the danger is going to not stay confined to the Middle East, but will spill out into the world.

AZZA FAHMY, jewelry maker: I saw my children in front of the TV until 5 o'clock in the morning, waiting for the election, and I couldn't believe they are interesting in supporting Obama to that extent. And at 5 o'clock, my daughter, Fapah, she said, "Mommy, he won," which is -- you know, I think everybody has hope of -- of Obama to change the situation.

FATHY SALAMA, jazz musician: I think there should be another way to deal with this whole problem of the Middle East, with Israel and the Arab world, and I think the only way to deal with this is not blood and is not war, because it proved that it doesn't work.

So I think what I'm expecting from Barack Obama is to find other ways to make a final peace treatment in this area, because this is what everybody wants.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you watch the inauguration, his speech?

HASSAN Al-HUSSAINY, businessman: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what did you think?

HASSAN Al-HUSSAINY: I think he has good mind. He's looking to change something in the future. He have many ideas. So the people in America or all in other countries should wait to see what he will do.

I think his wife have a good mind, also. She will look into new ideas about learning and about the woman, especially, and about the children in all the world.

Gaza has central importance

MARGARET WARNER: Well, that is quite a mix. President Obama in his inaugural speech spoke directly to the people in the countries where you were. He said, "To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward based on mutual interest and mutual respect." Did that overture register with the people you had spoken with?

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, that was widely noted in the press and on television and people I spoke to. He said that, which was taken as appealing directly to people, but he also said something that got a lot of attention which was, "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history."

So, now, that was taken as him speaking directly to governments, which is, of course, quite interesting in this part of the world, where you have an increasing split between the street and government. You have very authoritarian governments.

So there was a lot of interesting commentary on reading these two statements and speaking directly to people, on the one hand, about mutual respect, but, also, what exactly is he saying to the governments? That was what a lot of people were wondering about.

MARGARET WARNER: But you found, really, that the Gaza conflict was front and center in people's minds.

JEFFREY BROWN: Hard to overstate that, I mean, impossible to overstate that, really. One way of talking about it -- you know from your travels the incredible changes in media throughout the world.

In the Arab region, the proliferation of satellite television, it's grown and grown, especially over the last decade. So wherever I was and throughout the region -- Al Jazeera being the best known, but there are others -- the images were constant, were nonstop, and they are very graphic images, far more graphic than what we tend to see here.

I remember a man telling me with tears in his eyes where he would say, "I feel like I have seen every one of the 1,300 bodies of people who were killed."

It was that kind of -- I was with one of Egypt's top talk-show hosts, a woman who does a nightly program, where they talk about politics and social issues. And she said, "It would be impossible to overstate how much people are interested in this. That's all they want to talk about."

Hamas has risen in Lebanon

MARGARET WARNER: So after -- I think the day you flew home is when Obama -- President Obama appointed a Middle East envoy, Middle East peace envoy. Did this Gaza conflict, from the people you talked to, just make that all the harder now?

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, I think what became clear to me, from people I talked to and from what I gather from all of this, is that everything is on the table. Gaza puts it on the table. It didn't create all these things, but it illuminates them.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there in a very big, violent way. The rise of Islamists, of non-state actors, Hamas in this case, Hezbollah, as I saw in Lebanon, their increasing role, their great popularity seen as the only responders, in some cases. And, finally, the deep splits in the Arab world that we saw during this, where country versus country, they couldn't come up with a unified response, very interesting to see.

MARGARET WARNER: And so when are we going to see the arts pieces you went to do?

JEFFREY BROWN: The arts pieces, we'll put them together and we'll have them at the end of next month. It's to go with a festival that's here in Washington and bringing in performing artists from all over the Arab world.

MARGARET WARNER: Terrific, Jeff, thanks.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, thank you.