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After Obama win, Arabs ready for change in Middle East

Essam al-Erian, a senior leader of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, described Obama's victory as "historical".

world Updated: Nov 06, 2008 15:33 IST

In a region where the presence of the US cannot be more evident in political life, Egyptian political forces are hopeful that the victory of Barack Obama in the American presidential race will bring to their part of the world the "change" he vowed.

Essam al-Erian, a senior leader of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, described Obama's victory as "historical".

"Obama's victory is a historical moment for the US and can be historical for the whole world," al-Erian said.

Al-Erian, a prominent spokesman for the group that is the largest opposition group in Egypt and the father of Islamist movements across the Middle East, said that Obama's win heralds a break with the divisive Republican policies of the past.

"Here comes a man who would correct the policies that devastated the world, and caused pain and deformation."

Political forces in Egypt join many in the region who are hopeful that the election of Obama means a less confrontational US, one that is willing to talk rather than to strike.

They are anticipating Obama's promises to make a change in foreign policies that includes containment of the Iranian nuclear crisis, bringing stability to Iraq along with pushing for a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

While al-Erian believes that withdrawal from Iraq, as promised by Obama, "is a correction to a historical mistake made by the Bush administration" he believes that the core of the crisis and instability in the Middle East will continue to be the Palestinian issue.

"The main and most crucial (issue) in the region remains the Palestinian issue. The US cannot guarantee a peaceful and stabilized Middle East by merely withdrawing from Iraq but also (it must push) for a just and comprehensive peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," al-Erian explained.

Refaat al-Said, secretary general of the leftist al-Tagammu party, however believes that Obama will on the contrary take a harsher policy towards the Palestinians and the Arabs when it comes to the struggle with Israel.

Al-Said cites Obama's position of support of Israel which, according to him, was more or less similar to that of John McCain.

"The Republicans, as compared to the Democrats, have always been staunch supporters of Israel over the Palestinians. Obama might find himself in a position where he needs to prove otherwise. A more hardline policy towards the Palestinians is thus anticipated," the leftist leader said.

Concerning Egyptian-US relations, Egyptian analysts hope that Obama will pay considerable attention to relations with Cairo. Egypt has long been a key US ally in the region, and a recipient of billions of dollars in military and other aid each year.

Analysts believe that US interests in the region, from stabilising Iraq and safeguarding Arab-Israeli relations to containing Iranian influence in the Gulf, need sound Egyptian-American cooperation as a basis.

According to diplomatic sources in Cairo there is a general feeling among Egyptian officials that with the victory of Obama, bilateral disagreements over political reform and human rights will be easier to handle.

Officials here perceive that as the new US administration attempts to correct the disorder caused by the Bush administration in Iraq it will resort to Cairo's strategic and political weight to guarantee Arab and Islamic support.

This scenario and the regaining of Egypt's central role, Egypt is hopeful, will make the US administration more sensitive and less overt in expressing views over internal affairs.

Relations between Cairo and Washington have been strained in the last five years. Both countries differed sharply over US policies in the region, especially towards Iraq and the settlement of the Arab-Israeli struggle.

US criticism of the Egyptian government over its human rights record and political reform also increased tensions.

However, there are fears in Cairo that the influence of neo-conservatism will be long-lasting.

"The fact that Obama won does not mean that the policies of the neocons (new-conservatives) are going to vanish overnight," Gamil Matar, director of the Arab Centre for Development and Futuristic Research, warned.

"The war against terrorism that they instigated is still flaring, the outlines of US military strategy are still intact, the laws eroding civil rights and liberties in the US are ready to be used, and neoconservative officials remain in key positions of government," Matar wrote in the London-based al-Hayat newspaper.