In coverage leading up to President Obama's speech in Cairo tomorrow, Middle East newspapers and TV stations--some of them government run, some of them censored--are posing the speech as an opportunity to improve relations, separating Obama from his predecessor, and touting Obama's perceived toughness on Israel. In short, the coverage was good from Obama's standpoint.
As Arab, Persian, and Pakistani media analyze Obama's trip, it's accepted almost universally that the Israeli/Palestinian peace process will be key to his success in the region--a point many news outlets made today.
A headline from state-run Iran Daily declares, "Obama to Get Mideast Talks Back on Track," while, according to Saudi English-language outlet Arab News, Obama's trip "evokes hope for the future" in Saudis. A sub-head in Pakistani newspaper Dawn declares that Obama looks to revive peace talks "while a US confrontation steadily builds with Israel." Both Iran Daily and the Iranian Islamic Republic News Agency ran stories on Obama's discussions of Iranian nuclear-energy ambitions--both of them posing Obama favorably.
Hezbollah-run Al-Manar TV highlighted Israeli criticism of Obama and played up the souring of relations under Bush. Obama has the chance "be marked as an ally of Muslims, not an adversary as his predecessor was cast," according to an editorial in Qatari English-language daily The Peninsula. The English-language Yemen Post reported that Obama's trip has "kindled hope," though Muslims want to see tangible policy changes. In an op-ed in The Jordan Times, former Jordanian Minister of Culture Faisal Al Rfouh writes Obama's visit "could hold the key" to the basic issues of Israeli/Palestinian peace and Iran's nuclear ambitions.
These headlines tell us that Obama is seen as a fresh start. Middle East reporters and commentators clearly separated him from his predecessor, explicitly noting the souring of relations between the U.S. and the Arab world under Bush--and noting that Obama's trip is an attempt to undo that Bush-era souring.
State-run news agencies like Iran Daily and Al-Manar showed that Hezbollah and Iran see Obama as an opportunity. Far from demonizing the American president, their reports held him favorably, promoting his openness to a nuclear (energy-wise) Iran and casting him as a breaking point from unconditional U.S. backing of Israel.
In effect, Arab and Persian news delivered the message that Obama is different from Bush--which is, undoubtedly, a big part of how he wants the Muslim world to perceive him.
For the state-run and state-censored news agencies, this means that governments know Obama is popular. Critical coverage wouldn't fit. If anything, Iran and Hezbollah pushed Obama's desired image farther than he would like it to be pushed. Perhaps there is political gamesmanship in this coverage, seeking to paint Obama into a corner--calling extra attention to Obama's openness to Iran and the Arab peace initiative in order to tie him to it. Or perhaps not.
Despite all of this success for Obama's image, there was one down-side to today's coverage for the president: the simultaneous coverage of Osama bin Laden's message decrying Obama's visit, placed directly under the lead Obama story on Al Jazeera's website and featured prominently on others.
But, all in all, a successful news day for the president in the Muslim world.