- President wants to restore America's battered image
- Bin Laden attacks US for 'sowing seeds of hate'
-Taken from 'The Guardian' (with Ian Black)
-Cairo - June 2009
-Live updates on speech day from the Guardian here
The biggest security operation ever seen in Egypt was under way tonight as Cairo prepared to welcome Barack Obama for his landmark speech to the Muslim world after a warning of revenge against the US by Osama bin Laden
Unprecedented security measures are in place for Obama's big day in Cairo, of which the centrepiece is a 50-minute address at the city's university tomorrow. He will also hold talks with President Hosni Mubarak and tour the pyramids and a medieval mosque.
But as the president arrived today in Saudi Arabia, where he wants Arab gestures to coax Israel into revived peace talks, Bin Laden – in a broadcast – attacked US pressure for a campaign of "killing, fighting, bombing and destruction" that had prompted the exodus of a million Muslims in north-west Pakistan.
"Obama and his administration have sown new seeds to increase hatred and revenge on America," the al-Qaida leader said in a message that was aired by al-Jazeera TV. "The number of these seeds is equal to the number of displaced people from Swat Valley."
Obama, however, will seek to reach out to 1.5 billion Muslims and Arabs in the much-awaited speech in Egypt, which has generated huge expectations about improving America's battered image across the region.
The president has to walk a fine line between improving that image and abandoning goals shared with the Bush administration.
"I thought it was very important to come to the place where Islam began and to seek his majesty's counsel and to discuss with him many of the issues we confront here in the Middle East," Obama said while standing next to 84-year-old King Abdullah in Riyadh.
The president has spoken of easing "misapprehensions" between the west and the Muslim world, where many have high hopes of the son of a Kenyan Muslim who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia. "I am confident that we're in a moment where in Islamic countries, I think there's a recognition that the path of extremism is not actually going to deliver a better life for people," Obama told NBC News before he left Washington.
The White House has been working to lower expectations about the speech, which comes after visits to Turkey and Iraq, a Persian New Year video and a town hall meeting in Istanbul, warning specifically that it will not include detailed new initiatives. Iran's top diplomat in Egypt has been invited to attend.
Parts of Cairo were in a state of lockdown last night, with tens of thousands of police lining the streets and military helicopters circling overhead. Major traffic arteries were sealed off and businesses in many neighbourhoods have been ordered to shut and residents told to stay at home and not look out of their windows.
"No corner has been left out," said one security official. "There will be security members on roofs, in houses, everywhere."
The huge security presence – which has reportedly been bolstered by up to 3,000 CIA operatives – is provoking resentment in Cairo, where tomorrow's speech has already divided opinions.
"What they're inflicting on us is haram (religiously forbidden)," complained Mohammed Iman, a computer shop employee. "Our livelihoods are being assaulted, and for what? Obama will bring nothing to this country; if they spent a fraction of all this security money here on giving people bread then we'd all be much better off."
Iman's sentiments were shared by students at Cairo University, where exams have been suspended. "It's ironic they spend all this cash now repainting the railings and sweeping the pavements, but don't bother with us the rest of the year," said Salman Fuda, a 22-year-old undergraduate.
Obama's itinerary for the day will include trips to the Giza pyramids and the 14th-century Sultan Hassan mosque, as well as bilateral talks with Mubarak, who is facing a wave of opposition over his economic policies and ties with Israel and the US. Mubarak will not attend the speech, fuelling speculation that the 81-year-old's health could be fading. But members of the formally banned Muslim Brotherhood will be there.
Despite the grumbling, some Cairenes are taking advantage of the visit's business opportunities and looking to cash in on a localised bout of Obamamania.
Gamal Shosha began churning out T-shirts likening Obama to the pharaoh Tutankhamun as soon as he heard news of the visit. He has since sold 30 from his shop in the historic Khan al-Khalili market, as well as copper plaques inscribed with Obama's name in hieroglyphics.
"When the boy king Tutankhamun took power, he was young and there was a lot of unrest in the world," explained Shosha.
"Obama is also young and the world is very disturbed at the moment; we are hoping that – like Tutankhamun – he can bring peace."