The expectations were huge. And on Thursday in Cairo, US President Barack Obama did his best to deliver, trying to reverse years of animosity between the United States and Muslims across the globe. The speech, which lasted for roughly one hour, called for a "new beginning based upon mutual interest and mutual respect."
For many in the US, the speech came as a welcome relief after years of "us-versus-them" rhetoric coming from the White House of Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush. Europe too welcomed Obama's comments, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who met with the US president on Friday in Dresden before she was to accompany him to the former concentration camp Buchenwald, praising the speech.
"Yesterday's speech in a way opened doors toward the Arab world," she said at a Friday press conference with Obama in Dresden. She also said it "can be the point of departure for many political activities" aimed at reviving the Middle East peace process. "I think that, with the new American government and the president, there is a truly unique opportunity to revive this peace process, let us put this very cautiously, this process of negotiations."
The European Union's foreign policy chief Javier Solana likewise welcomed the speech, saying "I think that we -- the EU, the US and the countries of the region -- can begin to solve many problems we are confronted with in the Middle East."
Still, the US president didn't make everyone happy. Even as Obama emphasized in his speech the tight relationship between the US and Israel, the reaction from Jerusalem was tepid. Indeed, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted with silence to Obama's critique of his settlement policy. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who is often far from reserved when it comes to the Palestinians and those who would support them, said merely that the relationship between the US and Israel is "strong and unbreakable."
German commentators on Friday took a closer look at Barack Obama's landmark speech in Cairo.
SPIEGEL ONLINE writes:
"Obama spent the first quarter of his speech explaining in detail his view of the Islamic world. He interwove the experiences of his youth in Indonesia with the accomplishments of Islamic history and carefully selected citations from the Koran."
"And he did something very smart. Before his audience could start bathing in compliments, he demanded the same respect and impartiality for his own country. Most important was his tone; Obama explained America to his audience rather than proclaiming it, as US presidents of the past have done all too often. 'Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire. We were born out of revolution against an empire. We were founded upon the ideal that all are created equal.'"
"He employed two leitmotifs: the premise that we must look forward, not back. And the clever intermingling of his personal history and his office. He presented himself as a true global citizen; Barack Hussein Globama, living proof that apparent opposites can be united."
The left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung writes:
"All those expecting a new political project for the region and a detailed plan for how things should proceed were disappointed. Washington's commander-in-chief deftly defended the US operation in Afghanistan. The pull-out from Iraq, announced long ago, was announced again. He elegantly skirted the issue of Iran by talking of his vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, while granting all countries that use atomic energy for peaceful purposes (Iran included) the right to do so."
"Likewise on the Middle East conflict, President Obama only restated his already well known position: the two-state solution and an end to the building of Israeli settlements."
"If Obama doesn't want to squander the sympathy that he has gained from the Islamic world, he'll have to start offering answers to these questions soon. Obama spoke of a new chapter in relations with the Islamic and Arab world -- and that world applauded with gusto. But those who clapped today will be measuring him against his deeds tomorrow."
The center-left paper Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"Political scientists call what Obama is doing, 'stage setting.' He's setting the stage for the future crisis conferences and global summits where his global policy will play out. Even the president has only a vague notion of the script, of how the drama of war and peace, and the reconciliation between the Orient and the Occident, will unfold. He can and must hope that all the other actors in the Middle East -- Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians, Iranians, Syrians, Saudis and many more -- are willing to play along.
"Those who complain that an actual plan of action is missing from all the rhetorical flourish, speak too soon. The Holy Land, damned to violence, has long since stopped believing in plans and roadmaps. Those who say that Obama was too unctuous and noncommittal in his speech, haven't understood him. Following the disasters of the Iraq war and the collapse of Wall Street capitalism, this president must establish a new standing and status for his country in the world. Only then can he make good on America's influence."
"A rough sketch of Obama's strategy can be discerned. By the end of the year, he plans to harvest the seeds he's now sowing. By then, Arab regimes should be approaching Jerusalem's government with offers of reconciliation that could encourage Israel to stop building settlements. At the same time, Obama is trying to figure out if the regime in Tehran is open to dialogue with its arch enemy. This could allay the neighbor's fear of a Shiite bomb and calm the region. Because without pressure from Tehran, Hamas and Hezbollah are unlikely to agree to a cease-fire with Israel."
The conservative Die Welt writes
"Obama went farther than any previous US president in distancing himself from Israel's policy of occupation. At the same time, he made it absolutely clear that the Islamic world must accept Israel's existence for once and for all. Of course, his mention of the threat posed by Iran and its charges, Hamas and Hezbollah, was only indirect."
"Obama wanted to strike the right tone for the Muslim public, and has to hope that his words won't be spun by Islamic leaders into an admission of guilt. After all, he wasn't shy about making demands of them, mentioning democratization and women's rights. Obama lay all the elements of dialogue on the table in Cairo. Now it remains to be seen if words can really be the beginning of change in the world."
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"No speech -- no matter how insightful and intellectually brilliant it may have been -- can change the basic facts of international relations. Obama went through the entire catalogue of problems in the relationship with the Islamic world, from al-Qaida's terrorism to freedom of religion, from humanitarian cooperation to the economy, education and research. But what matters is whether his government can get closer to solving the major political problems."