- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 9, 2009

President Obama next month will travel to Egypt to address the world’s Muslims in a major speech, seeking to strengthen U.S. relations with the Islamic world and fight extremism, the White House said Friday.

Mr. Obama chose Egypt as the venue for the long-promised speech, to be delivered June 4, because the country “in many ways represents the heart of the Arab world,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.

He said a city had not been chosen yet.

Mr. Gibbs said the president in his remarks will “extend a hand to those that in many ways are like us, but just simply have a different religion.”

“Our hope is not to draw a large crowd, but our hope is to reach a large portion of the world with what we hope is a powerful message,” Mr. Gibbs said.

The president’s trip will include a visit to the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, Germany, which Mr. Obama’s great-uncle helped to liberate during World War II. He also will join world leaders in France to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landing in Normandy, France.

Ziad al-Asali, a prominent Arab-American and president of the American Task Force on Palestine, predicted in December that Mr. Obama would choose Egypt because of its central role in Islam and the Arab world and its status as the first Arab country to make peace with Israel. Mr. al-Asali said the site sends a signal that the Obama administration is committed to an Arab-Israeli peace deal.

Egypt for years has served as a back-channel for the United States to the Palestinian militant group Hamas, and, in a more open capacity, has provided training for Palestinian security services.

Despite the 1979 peace accord, Egypt’s relations with Israel have not always been smooth.

From time to time, Egypt has withdrawn its ambassadors from Tel Aviv, and in the past three years, Israeli leaders have charged that Egypt has failed to control weapons and aid smuggled into Hamas-controlled Gaza.

Egypt also strongly supports proposals for a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East, a policy that would likely compel Israel to admit to its strategic nuclear arsenal. As The Washington Times reported Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be seeking a reaffirmation of the 40-year understanding between the United States and Israel on the latter’s nuclear arsenal in his upcoming meeting with Mr. Obama.

Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Egypt was the logical place for Mr. Obama to give the highly touted speech because “it has a disproportionate voice in Islam. It has led both in the scholarship and in the malevolent movements that have spread off from Islam.”

He predicted the speech would be personal in tone.

“This is something [Mr. Obama] has wanted to do - not staff-driven or consultant-driven - much like his race speech in Philadelphia. As someone who partly grew up in a Muslim country, Obama was profoundly affected by the tension between the U.S. and the Muslim world after Sept. 11 and feels a personal need and responsibility” to try to repair the relationship.

Egyptian Ambassador Sameh Shoukry said his nation is the “center of Islamic intellectual thought,” with a rich history of tolerance and diversity. Egypt, he added, is ready to work with Mr. Obama to promote regional peace and stability.

“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.

Eli Lake contributed to this report.

• Christina Bellantoni can be reached at 125725@example.com.

• Barbara Slavin can be reached at .

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