Obama in Egypt and His Speech to the Muslim World

Martin S. Indyk and
Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk Former Brookings Expert, Distinguished Fellow - The Council on Foreign Relations
Tamara Cofman Wittes

May 31, 2009

Tamara Cofman Wittes and Martin Indyk joined a group of Middle East experts, journalists and activists to discuss what should be said by President Obama during his June 4 speech to the Muslim world from Egypt. The full discussion can be read on


President Obama’s speech must redefine how Muslim audiences view America’s role in their lives. While our strength — and our interests — are not things for which to apologize, we benefit from being seen as a positive influence. The appeal of Islamist radicalism lies in its revolutionary resistance to the stagnation and suffering in many Muslim societies. Countering that ideology requires a positive vision in which pluralism and peace bring tangible benefits.

If America’s new engagement is to help build a positive future for the peoples of the Muslim world, the president must address the domestic political and economic context in which nearly all Arabs and many other Muslims live — and the ways in which this deprives them of the rights to change their governments, express themselves freely or improve their standard of living. Obama must embrace the aspirations of the overwhelmingly young Muslim public for the freedom and opportunity to shape their own future.

In building a partnership with Muslims around the world, I hope Obama will say that: A government’s role is to give our young people the foundations they need to realize their dreams, and the ability to hold us accountable for what we deliver. Most important, we must give them our trust — the freedom to make their own choices and to help determine our future.


First, President Obama needs to recognize the diversity among those he is addressing. Most Muslims are not Arabs and many do not want to be associated with the ills that afflict that troubled part of their world.

What they do share, however, is a sense of humiliation at the hands of the West. The plight of Palestinians resonates across the Muslim world because it touches that nerve. A sincere commitment to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will help soothe the neuralgia.

Further, respect for Muslims’ human aspirations and a commitment to upholding their human rights go hand in hand. Acknowledging our failings in this respect can go a long way toward getting them to face up to their own.

Finally, offering a partnership in charting a new, more positive course in relations will resonate. But the president needs to be clear that we will treat them as equals if they will join us in promoting the free flow of ideas, building knowledge societies and giving hope to youth.