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Essam Al-Erian, a senior member of Egypt’s Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, called it “disappointing.”

“American strategy remains as is,” he said. “American cover for dictatorial presidents in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain remains as is. American promises are just promises.”

Kamal Nawash, president of the Free Muslims Coalition in Washington, said Mr. Obama’s approach shows “it is better to establish democracy with free trade and investment rather than regime change.” He praised the speech as Mr. Obama’s best comments yet on the Middle East.

Murhaf Jouejati, a professor of Middle East studies at the National Defense University in Washington, said Mr. Obama was “tougher than ever before on Syria,” although the president stopped short of calling on Mr. Assad to step down.

Mr. Obama, who is backing a NATO bombing campaign in Libya to topple strongman Col. Moammar Gadhafi, began his speech by trying to draw a sharp distinction between his approach to the Middle East and that of his predecessor, Republican George W. Bush.

“We’ve done much to shift our foreign policy following a decade defined by two costly conflicts,” Mr. Obama said. “After years of war in Iraq, we’ve removed 100,000 American troops and ended our combat mission there. In Afghanistan, we’ve broken the Taliban’s momentum, and this July we will begin to bring our troops home and continue a transition to Afghan lead. And after years of war against al Qaeda and its affiliates, we have dealt al Qaeda a huge blow by killing its leader, Osama bin Laden.”

A Pew Research Center poll taken on the eve of Mr. Obama’s speech shows attitudes toward the United States in predominantly Muslim countries remain negative. The survey showed that Mr. Obama is unpopular in Muslim nations except Indonesia, and most Muslims disapprove of the way he has handled calls for democratic change in the Middle East.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.