- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2009


AMMAN, Jordan — The world watched Tuesday as the United States inaugurated a new president, perhaps nowhere with as much anticipation and divided emotion as in the Middle East.

In his speech, President Obama made a special point of reaching out to the world’s Muslims, many of whom rejected his predecessor’s policies for causing chaos and suffering in Iraq and failing to bring peace and statehood to the Palestinians.

“To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect,” Mr. Obama said.

Amman shopkeeper Farouk abu-Zeid told The Washington Times that the turning of the page on the Bush administration couldn’t come soon enough.

“We faced so much trouble during President Bush’s term, but now we’re looking forward to President Obama to do something to improve things, whether peace in the region or the global financial crisis,” the 56-year-old merchant said.

“He should be nice to our area,” Mr. abu-Zeid said. “Let people live in peace. This is all we want, especially for Palestine and Iraq.” A Palestinian doctor in Amman also expressed hope that Mr. Obama could end the region’s chronic conflicts.

“President Obama wants to replace the gun with dialogue,” Jihad Barghouti said. “Arabs, both ordinary people and their leaders, should stop their defiance and insults of the U.S. administration and the American people. ‘Yes, we can’ must be the way forward for us all,” he said.

Others were more skeptical.

“Yes, President Obama is bright, charismatic and capable, but the extent that he can make change is very limited,” said Amr Baytaneh, 45, a Jordanian businessman.

“Maybe there will be a breakthrough with Iran,” he said, “but to what degree do you think Israel will permit an opening with the Islamic Republic?”

At the Husn Palestinian refugee camp in northern Jordan, pessimism was also the rule.

“Yes, the president has changed, but U.S. policy in the Mideast will remain the same,” said camp resident Salim Shuifat, following a fiery rally in support of Gaza on Tuesday in which hundreds burned Israeli flags to protest the deaths of more than 1,200 Palestinians.

The U.S. “has blindly supported Israel and has permitted massive death and destruction on helpless victims in Gaza,” he said.

In Israel, media outlets pushed aside coverage of the fragile cease-fire with Hamas to follow the U.S. inauguration.

Political analysts debated what the Obama Mideast policy would be and said it was not coincidence that Israel ended the Gaza offensive two days before Mr. Obama took office.

Avi Bar, 30, a political consultant, gathered with Israeli and American friends in a downtown Tel Aviv apartment to watch the inauguration over cupcakes, hotdogs and apple pie.

“We sat here, a bunch of 10 people and we thought, ‘Good for America.’ You know how on the West Wing the president is well spoken and well read? That’s Obama. We feel America is going to be a good leader. And if America is strong, it’s good for us.” Asked if he was worried that Mr. Obama would keep his campaign promise and open a dialogue with Iran, Mr. Bar said, “It’s good trying to talk to your enemies. He will talk first, and when the time comes to take action, he’ll take it.”

In Tehran, for the first time since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iranian state-run TV broadcast a U.S. presidential inauguration and interviewed Iranians after the Obama speech.

A middle-aged man wearing a simple jacket said he was not surprised that Mr. Obama had not specifically mentioned the Israeli offensive against Gaza.

But another younger Tehrani said, “At least he is not aggressive in his talk as Bush used to be.” The two countries have had no diplomatic relations for three decades and some Iranians hope their government will have a harder time demonizing an Obama administration than the Bush team — and vice versa.

In Pakistan, a Muslim nation that has ties with the U.S. but largely anti-U.S. public opinion, all news TV channels broadcast the inauguration live, as well as special programs on Mr. Obama and U.S. political history.

“Obamas message is clear. I am sure he is going to bring a change,” retired Gen. Talat Masood told The Washington Times.

He said Mr. Obama has a much better understanding of the problems faced by the Muslim world and South Asia than President Bush. “He reached out to the Muslim world. He will facilitate Pakistan and Afghanistan to address these issues,” Gen. Masood said.

Former Pakistani foreign secretary Riaz Khokhar said Mr. Obama is facing numerous challenges.

“There is huge debris left by Bush in the shape of Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The big problem for Obama will be image building of United States in the world,” he said. “I think he will close Guantanamo prison.”

However university student Hina Gul said Barack Obama seem sincere in his promise to change in U.S. foreign policy.

“I believe Obama will be much better than Bush. He has to bring change in the U.S. external policies as United States itself can not longer afford war policies because of its own economic crises,” Mr. Gul said.

Islamabad Attaullah Yousafzai praised Mr. Obama for not using “the phrase ‘war on terrorism in his speech. I hope he will bring the promised change. I hope he will address the basic problems of militancy in Pakistani tribal areas which are poverty, unemployment and illiteracy,” Mr. Yousafzai said.

Reaction in Europe combined enthusiasm and relief that an administration that championed pre-emptive war and unilateralism was passing from the scene.

In France, the popular daily, Parisien, ran a banner headline on its Web site that recalled the outpouring of affection for the U.S. after the Sept. 11 attacks. It read: “The Entire World Awaits Obama.”

“What we feel in France today … is a sentiment that is a bit like the liberation after World War II,” said Etienne Schweisguth, an analyst at the Center for Political Research at Science Po, the premier political science institute in France. “The idea that were entering a new world, that everything is possible and that were going to build an ideal world. Obviously the French dream of this — and know that reality doesnt correspond to this ideal world. But I still think that fundamentally the French expect of Barack Obama is that America again finds the path it fixed during the time of George W. Bushs father — that is the path to a world order.”

(Corrected paragraph:) Marie Simon from the popular French Web site the Lexpress.fr, praised Mr. Obama’s speech, saying, he found a “good balance between solemnity and relaxed attitude.”

(Corrected paragraph:) “I found him very human, not trying to prove that he was infallible,” added Marc Crepin, a veteran journalist for Radio France. For Mr. Crepin, the main message Mr. Obama sent to Europe and the rest of the world was, “There is some work to be done, but we’re starting to work right now.”

In Britain, the transition was greeted with gusto.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown praised Mr. Obama as “a man of great vision” and young people snapped pictures with Mr. Obama’s wax likeness at Madame Tussaud’s.

From London to Birmingham, Manchester and Cheltenham in England, Edinburgh across the border in Scotland and Belfast across the water in Northern Ireland, parties were under way and drinks flowed as Mr. Obama took the oath of office.

In Kenya, home of Mr. Obama’s late father, thousands of people slaughtered goats, raised U.S. flags and partied.

“It was inspiring to see people braving the cold and standing around for hours to hear him,” said Najib Mohamed Balala, Kenya’s minister of tourism, who came to Washington for the inauguration. “I was tearing up. This is a man who will bring change and peace to the world.”

He said Mr. Obama was setting an example for Kenya, where corruption and tribalism still tarnish its quest for a stable democracy.

“This is a time to bring change to Kenya,” he said. “It is time for a revolution of the mind to clean up corruption and tribalism.”

Mr. Balala, a Muslim, noted that Mr. Obama was “addressing everyone … rich, poor, Muslims.”

In South Africa, support for the first black president also bubbled over at private parties and among enthusiastic crowds on the street.

Taxis played his inaugural address on their radios. On the sidewalks of Johannesburg, people set up portable sound systems. Crowds gathered around the speakers, even losing their places in the line for taxis home to hear Mr. Obama take the oath of office.

Vida Mpilo, 24, a library clerk, said she hoped to meet the new president.

“It has to be my dream,” she said. “To meet him or even just come and see him speak. He has lifted the view of what Africans can do in the world.”

“I think he will be a good man for America,” Prudence Khumalo agreed. But the 32-year-old mother of three, who travels 30 miles to work, in two different taxis, added, “But here, I don’t think he can make a difference. Bush came to South Africa and Bill Clinton comes to visit here many times, but it doesn’t change our lives.” Although Americans see Mr. Obama as the country’s first black president, in South Africa he is viewed as “colored,” the term applied to people of mixed race. Out of a population of 45 million, there are between 3 million and 4 million coloreds in South Africa.

“This is a wonderful day for coloreds,” said travel agent Jerry van Rooyen, 52. “In Africa, we have never been really accepted by the blacks or the whites, but look as us now. For the next four years, our man is going to run the world.”

South Africa’s first black president, Nelson Mandela, sent Mr. Obama a letter of congratulations in which he wrote, “Your election to this high office has inspired people as few other events in recent times have done.”

In the world’s most populous nation, many ordinary Chinese were too preoccupied with the lunar New Year travel rush to pay much attention to the presidential inauguration.

However, English-speaking Chinese gathered with expatriates to watch Mr. Obama on big-screen TVs in Beijing bars. “I am so touched about how passionate the American people are being at the moment,” said Man Hong, 26.

“Obama is certainly a hero in China. Most people are talking about him, especially my friends and family, young and old. They may not know everything he stands for, but they know he represents change,” she said.

Josh Mitnick in Tel Aviv, Hadi Nili in Tehran, Nasir Khan in Islamabad, Elizabeth Bryant in Paris, Al Webb in London, Anne-Laure Buffard and James Morrison in Washington, Geoff Hill in Johannesburg and Chris O’Brien in Beijing contributed to this report.

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