“The true nature of Islam lies in its moderate heart, not at its radical fringes,” the ambassador said. “Egypt is very hopeful that President Obama’s speech will mark a watershed in America’s relations with the Muslim world.”
But Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said he was concerned the choice may send the wrong signal to Egyptians who are fighting for democracy.
He said Mr. Obama will face criticism for speaking in a country where people who protest against President Hosni Mubarak go to jail and where “there has never been a free election.”
“What will the president say about freedom while he’s in Egypt? There are Egyptians who are struggling for free speech, freedom of elections and independent courts. We’re either going to help them or we are going to abandon them,” Mr. Abrams said.
But Mr. Abrams acknowledged finding a suitable site was a tough choice, since “if you go down the list of countries there are not too many good candidates,” even leaving aside the immense security concerns for the president.
Mr. Obama was thought to be considering giving the speech in Jakarta, Indonesia, which has the largest population of Muslims in the world and where he lived for several years as a child.
Mr. Gibbs said the location of the speech was not the issue.
“I think it addresses and will address our relationship here and in all corners of the world,” he said. “The scope of the speech, the desire for the president to speak is bigger than where the speech was going to be given or who is the leadership of the country where the speech is given.”
It’s one of many steps the new president has taken to reach out to Muslims abroad.
Mr. Obama recorded a video message for the Persian festival of Nowruz, celebrated as the Iranian New Year, and his first television interview as president was given not to a U.S. network but to the Arab-language network Al Arabiya.
Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said the speech was a good platform for continuing the inclusive message Mr. Obama spoke of in his inaugural address - “improved relations with the Muslim world based on mutual respect and mutual interest.”
“We just hope these positive rhetorical statements translate into similarly positive policy initiatives toward the Muslim world,” Mr. Hooper said.
Aaron Miller, a former Arab-Israeli negotiator for six U.S. secretaries of state, said Egypt remains a key player in Mr. Obama’s regional strategy for peace.
“If you were in fact thinking about doing something ambitious, you would want to make sure that Cairo and Washington were on the same page,” he said.
Mr. Mubarak reportedly will visit Washington later this month.