15 MAY 2009


When it was announced that U.S. President Obama will be making a second address to the Muslim world from Cairo, there were some questions raised, either by countries with similar claims on Islamic predominance or with a different religious nuance. There were also comments by some human rights activists within Egypt who mentioned specific cases citing recent violations.

Every location will have its potential critics. But the selection of Egypt could not be seriously contested. In every consideration, Egypt is a crucial Arab, Islamic, Asian, African, international populous Muslim country. Its political weight in the Arab world, in addition to its being the headquarters of the Arab League, is beyond contest. Its African credentials have been proven over the years through its role in almost all peacekeeping or peacemaking efforts. Its Asian part, through the Suez Canal, provides a crucial link through the Gulf to the Far East. Beyond any doubt, Egypt's diplomatic presence is felt everywhere, not only in the U.S. capital (where the ambassador, by the way, was born in the U.S.), but at the United Nations where its current Ambassador Maged Abdelaziz, like most of his predecessors, have made a special mark. Egypt is a founding member of the United Nations, the Organization of African Unity, the Movement of Non-Aligned Countries, the Group of 77 of Developing Countries, the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Africa -- just to mention a few intra-regional and international organizations. It has one of the oldest, if not the oldest, cultures in the world.

In brief, regardless of who is in power, Egypt is Egypt.

However, just to sharpen the focus on the issue of addressing the Muslim faithful everywhere, it will be symbolic -- and non-controversial -- if President Obama made his address from Al-Azhar University. It is the most highly-regarded theological institute in the Muslim world. Most sheikhs from varied nations spread globally have studied at Azhar. Although predominately Sunni, like the majority of world Muslims, their teachings are about religion, not politics. Its Grand Mufti has traditionally kept a respectful dialogue with his Shiite counterparts. While the political rift is between the regimes in Egypt and Iran, theologians from both sects have always tried to avert a conflict or "Fetna" amongst the believers of one and the same religion.

Mecca, of course, could have been ideal. But, regrettably, it is not allowed for non-Muslims, and Barack Hussein Obama is a practicing Christian. His opponents in the U.S. will have a field day if an exception was made to give him a platform there.

No doubt the team of advisers to the U.S. President have explored every option and settled on Cairo. If so, why not go to the heart of the matter which happens to be in the centre of the city.