Ambassador Margaret Scobey: Roundtable on President Obama’s Speech The Faculty of Economics and Political Science, Cairo University
Thank you so much for your kind introduction Dr. El Mahdey. It’s a great honor, not only to have the President of Cairo University, Dr. Hossam Kamel, but also Vice Presidents, Dr. Heba Nassar, Dr. Adel Zayed, Dr. Hussein Khaled joining us today, and other distinguished guests. It is really a great honor to be here with so many distinguished university figures as well as guests and faculty and students at this very prestigious facility of Cairo University.
I do very much feel to be in the presence of friends, friends that enjoy an opportunity to exchange views. I cannot thank Dr. Hossam and Dr. Heba enough, and the students and faculty of Cairo University, for their incredible generosity in making their beautiful building, their beautiful Celebration Hall, available for President Obama’s speech. It was a difficult time for you, you had exams going on, but I have to say that I cannot imagine a better place to have held this, to have assembled under that great dome such a huge variety of Egyptians of all characterizations. We had actors and scholars and politicians, and military, and students from around the world that reflect not just a range of Egyptians, but it was great to see the number of foreign students that were in various faculties throughout the country. So it was, in my view, a very perfect place to do this, and we will always remain very grateful because I know it was a huge, huge effort on your part, and certainly inconvenienced many of the programs that you had under way.
As we all are here to talk about, just over a month ago, President Obama came to speak to Egypt and to Muslim communities around the world. He certainly didn’t provide all the answers, but I think he sent a strong signal of commitment that the United States wants to work together with the region on some very great challenges that we face. He provided a very well developed framework for identifying where we have sources of tension and where we have opportunities for cooperation and put forth American views on how we can go forward to constructively confront some of these serious issues. He talked about a new beginning between the United States and Muslim communities around the world, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. He was very clear that one speech alone doesn’t solve all the problems, but he wanted to start a conversation, and not just between the United States and the Muslim world, but also within the Muslim world, and within America, and the West about how to address the sources of tension that have built up over the years. He challenged us all to take up the responsibilities that we share and called for a sustained effort to listen to each other, to learn from each other, to respect one another, and to seek common ground. He called frequently upon inspiration from the Holy Quran, reminding all of us of our obligations to “be conscious of God and speak always the truth.”
So, it is in this spirit, that we should have a discussion today, as an effort to listen to each other, and try to learn and understand. And I think it is a part of a conversation that has been taking place throughout Egypt and, I think, throughout the region. Our embassies around the world report a real heightened level of dialogue and interest in trying to confront and discuss some of the sources of tensions and looking for new opportunities. There have been lots of debates and discussions in newspapers and talk shows and the internet, with business leaders and other students. In my own conversations, people have said they particularly value President Obama’s message of peace and his call for all sides to face sources of tension and to do it together. He said, “Whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners to it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership, and our progress must be shared.”
So, I look forward today to hearing your thoughts and observations, and to look perhaps at one or all of the seven sources of tension President Obama identified because they provide a framework for discussion. I’d be interested to hear how people in this group think we can create new and even more effective partnerships. And you are right, the issue of scholarships is high on our list, and we are looking at a great discussion today to see how we can do more. I think we will all be pleased. We want to do more in the field of education.
I’ll go quickly through the list. The first topic he brought attention to was the problem of violent extremism making clear that this has never been an issue between the United States and Islam. But he did talk about what the U.S. is doing to assure that our confrontation with extremism does not alter our own principles, including the unequivocal prohibition of the use of torture and by ordering the closure of Guantanamo by next year. And since he spoke in Cairo, U.S. combat forces have, in fact, withdrawn form Iraqi cities and villages, as set forth in an agreement that we reached with Iraq.
This is a very significant milestone in the responsible withdrawal of our forces from Iraq, and Iraq’s continuing journey to reestablish its stability and to exercise its sovereignty and self reliance. We’ll continue to help their security forces, and continue to be a partner with them in their own development.
The President also addressed the situation between the Israelis, the Palestinians, and the Arab world reaffirming that the U.S. will align its policies with those who pursue peace, including Israelis and Palestinians, who he reiterated, deserve to live in peace and security in two states. He left no doubt about his firm belief that the situation for the Palestinian people today is intolerable and he repeated that the United States continues to believe that the continued construction of Israeli settlements undermines efforts for peace. At the same time, he called on Palestinians to absolutely abandon violence, and called upon the Arab states to do their part, particularly, he noted that the Arab Peace Initiative is an important initiative, but it is not the end, it’s only the beginning.
He reaffirmed his commitment to discuss many issues between the United States and Iran, taking very much into account how we believe there is a shared interest in the rights and responsibilities of all nations with regard to nuclear weapons. There is no doubt that any direct dialogue or diplomacy with Iran is going to be affected by the events of the last few weeks. He’s made clear that the current unrest in Iran is about the people of Iran and accusations by some in Iran that the United States or others in the West were instigating these protests were just patently false and it is an attempt to distract the people from what is taking place within Iran. We remain deeply disturbed about the Iranian government’s use of force, intimidation and unjust arrest against its citizens and continue to call upon its leadership to respect the international principles and to fulfill its international obligations. We will continue to watch what is happening in Iran. If the Iranian government desires the respect of international communities, they will need to respect the rights and will of their people.
President Obama also spoke about the issues of democracy and human rights making clear that the United States does not believe that there is any particular system of government that should or must be imposed upon one nation by another, but the United States will support human rights everywhere because we believe that the ability of people to speak their mind, to have a say in how they are governed, to have confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice are important to us. He believes that governments who protect these rights are ultimately more stable and more successful than governments that do not.
He talked about religious freedom, declaring that people in every country should be free to choose and live their faith, based upon their persuasion of mind, heart, and soul.
He addressed the issue of women’s rights, observing that countries where women are well-educated — and this room is full of this example — are more likely to be prosperous, noting that our daughters can contribute as much as our sons to our success.
Finally, he discussed economic development and opportunity noting that education and innovation are “the currency of the 21st century.” He spoke about the need to expand educational exchanges, scholarships and look for ways to improve in the areas of economic development. He’s going to launch a new fund to support technological development in the Muslim world.
I think the issues President Obama raised in Cairo are not easy to address, or certainly to solve, but as I said when I began, he put out a framework and a process for us to begin to discuss these issues. So, I think in that sense, the speech succeeded. But as he said, a speech alone doesn’t solve any issues, it can only set forward a framework, which will hopefully help us to come to mutually agreeable initiatives that we can take together to achieve progress in the areas where we share very, very strong values and goals.
I’ll make one last reference to his speech- it was one of my favorite parts- where he said “The world that we seek, a world where extremists no longer threaten our people, and American troops have come home; a world where Israelis and Palestinians are each secure in a state of their own, and nuclear energy is used for peaceful purposes; a world where governments serve their citizens, and the rights of all God’s children are respected.” This is what he is after, and I think that this is what the people of the Muslim world are also after.
These are our mutual interests. This is the world that the President believes in and I think that we can and should seek. So I thank you very much for inviting me back to Cairo University and I look forward to our opportunity to discuss this or anything else that’s on your mind today.
Thank you very much.