Page last updated at 17:18 GMT, Thursday, 4 June 2009 18:18 UK

Obama's Mid-East balancing act

As US President Barack Obama gives a keynote speech on the future of US relations with the Muslim world at Cairo University, Christian Fraser considers the difficulties the president faces in trying to please everyone.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (L) greets US President Barack Obama (R) in Cairo
US President Barack Obama has been touring the Middle East

There are no end of term exams at Cairo University today.

In fact normal student life has been suspended for almost a week.

The buildings have been spruced up, the roads repaved and the giant dome above the great hall where he is speaking has been buffed to a bronze sheen.

All this effort. But then President Obama is no ordinary visitor.

Remember the US aid package to Egypt is the largest to any country in the Middle East with the exception of Israel.

For the US administration the venue was carefully considered.

Egypt is a weighty Arab, majority Muslim country, a trendsetter in the region and now an important counterweight to the perceived threat from Iran.

The population is young. Sixty percent of the region's people are under the age of 25, so where better for the president to speak?

Many of the young people the president is addressing want 'change', and they are waiting anxiously for someone to deliver it

He wants to change the tone, to change the way people think of the United States.

He has lived in Indonesia. He has a Muslim father.

The polls suggest the Arabs already recognise the change in style.

In the ancient souks of the city, they are even selling Obama souvenirs.

But in coming to Egypt, President Obama must contend with an unavoidable truth, that for the past 28 years this country has been ruled with the blunt edge of emergency power. Fundamental freedoms are suspended.

Many of the young people the president is addressing want "change," and they are waiting anxiously for someone to deliver it.

Political backlash

Ahead of the president's visit I sat with the lawyer Ayman Nour.

Ayman Nour
Mr Nour was recently attacked with a flammable liquid while sitting in his car

In 2005 he dared to challenge the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the first multi-candidate presidential election encouraged by the Americans.

He took just 6% of the vote. Hardly a threat, but the backlash was unforgiving.

Nour was stripped of his parliamentary immunity and convicted of forgery charges, many considered politically inspired.

He suffered a stroke during three and half years in jail and in August last year, in desperation, wrote an impassioned letter to the then Senator Obama, pleading for his intervention.

He was finally released in February, within weeks of the US president's inauguration.

Ayman Nour's fate is the blunt warning to others who might show the same temerity in taking on the president

Nour's supporters were euphoric, but since then there has been little to celebrate.

He is banned from practising law. He is not allowed to work in politics or even to open a bank account.

He is estranged from his wife Gamila who campaigned tirelessly for his freedom. A result, he said, of the impossible strain.

Blunt warning

We chatted in his scruffy apartment above a supermarket in Zamalek, an island in the middle of the Nile in Cairo's diplomatic quarter.

Map of Egypt showing the capital Cairo

After three and a half years of neglect, the rooftop pool is empty, the chairs around it are broken, the billiard table is a forgotten relic.

"While in jail I lived under the worst conditions any political prisoner could face," he told me. "Violence, torture and revenge. Irrational revenge without any reason. "

But of course there was one very good reason.

Ayman Nour's fate is the blunt warning to others who might show the same temerity in taking on the president.

The goal is to break their resolve, to crush the spirit, and yet Nour still wants to run again in 2011.

Even though last week, the day after he told me of his decision to run, he was attacked while sitting in his car, by a man on a motorcycle. The biker sprayed a flammable liquid through the window, setting fire to his head.

Endorsement concerns

This kind of political repression extends far beyond Ayman Nour.

The outlawed Islamist group - the Muslim Brotherhood - who many believe would win if there was a free and fair election, say more than 300 of their members have been rounded up and arrested in the past six months alone. Many without charge.

"America has been supporting these autocracies in the Arab world for 60 years," said Nour. "When will they realise that the price of that policy is resentment, extremism and terrorism?"

Many here suggest the silent opposition in this country is enormous, under-estimated and the problem for President Obama, regardless of the bold intentions of his speech, is that his visit will be seen by many as an endorsement of Mubarak's rule.

"It is a disaster," said Wael Abbas a renowned journalist and blogger. "He shouldn't be coming to Egypt. It's not a free Muslim country.

"He should speak in a Muslim country where they respect the rule of law."

But a quarter of the Arabic world lives in Egypt - a big audience - and this country is now a crucial strategic partner.

The president, in his first interview with the BBC this week, described his Egyptian counterpart as a stalwart ally, a force for stability.

The language in this speech will point to a new strategy, one that neither neglects concerns for human rights, nor pursues them in isolation from the other major priorities.

But can he be all things to all people? Even for a skilled orator like Barack Obama it is a very difficult game to play.

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Story by story at the programme website

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04 Jun 09 |  Middle East
Obama talks to BBC’s Justin Webb
02 Jun 09 |  Americas
Profile: Ayman Nour
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