Egypt catches case of Obama fever

Cairo citizens ready for visit from U.S. president

LONDON — How excited is Cairo about today’s scheduled visit of the U.S. president? So excited that street vendors have been hawking Barack Obama T-shirts.

“It’s the first time that people here are selling T-shirts with the face of the U.S. president on them. They describe him as the new Tutankhamen,” said Randa Azem, Cairo bureau chief of leading pan-Arab newscaster Al-Arabiya.

“It’s the biggest show in town,” added Abdulrahman al-Rached, Al-Arabiya editor-in-chief. “Everyone here will be watching his speech in Cairo. “If Bush had been coming, they would have been burning pictures of him,” he quipped.

Making one’s way around Cairo, which has a population estimated at 15 million, is treacherous at the best of times. The city’s residents take pride in telling visitors that any given journey can take somewhere between 30 minutes to three hours depending on the traffic. Having the world’s most powerful man in town with his vast security detail is just one more obstacle for the city’s famously persistent press corps.

“Everyone is just waiting for Obama,” local film producer Gaby Khoury told Daily Variety. “The government has cleaned the streets; they’ve painted the walls and bridges and even renovated Cairo University. It’s as if the whole city has had a facelift.”

While most of Obama’s itinerary during his eight-hour sojourn in Cairo is being kept under wraps, with the exception of his university address and meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, journos in the country are furtively seeking to stay one step ahead of the competition for potential photo ops.

Rumors making their way around Egyptian news desks include supposed trips by Obama to the pyramids in Giza and a visit to the Sultan Hassan Mosque in Cairo.

One unintended casualty of Obama’s visit is Doug Liman’s spy pic “Fair Game,” about outed CIA agent Valerie Plame and her ambassador husband Joe Wilson. Filming on the pic, which is lensing in Egypt and stars Sean Penn and Naomi Watts, has been temporarily halted until after the U.S. prexy leaves town.

When Obama delivers his much-anticipated keynote speech at Cairo U., much of the Arab and Muslim world will be tuning in to hear what he has to say.

Local interest in his Middle East tour has been heightened by its timing, only days before crucial elections in Lebanon and Iran, both of which could alter the strategic balance of power in the region.

That the Arab world is facing an unprecedented number of challenges — from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to the Iranian nuclear issue, the ongoing fate of Iraq as well as the question of who will succeed Egypt’s 81-year-old prexy Mubarak — is giving Obama’s speech a sense of epochal significance.

In Egypt, and across the Arab world, newspapers and TV stations have been dominated by Obama coverage for much of the past week. “Cairo counts down to Obama,” wrote the respected Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram in one lengthy op-ed.

Al-Arabiya, which scored a coup this January when it became the first international channel to be granted an interview with the newly inaugurated U.S. prexy, has been dedicating much of its grid to coverage of Obama’s visits to both Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

“It’s been really crazy in terms of logistics and accreditations,” said Al-Arabiya’s Azem. “Most of the people here are happy with the visit even if it does mean Cairo is going to be shut down on Thursday.”

Rival newscaster Al-Jazeera, which until now had been giving Obama uncharacteristically favorable coverage, brought out two of its big guns on the eve of his arrival in Cairo with the airing of tapes allegedly by Osama Bin Laden and Aymen Al-Zawahiri blasting the U.S. prexy.

Their messages, however, were out of step with the majority of Arabs. Popular Saudi-owned website Elaph conducted a poll showing that 79% of Saudis held a favorable view of Obama, while Egyptian journos were incredulously detailing the sight of Obama T-shirts being sold on the streets of Cairo.

A group of prominent Muslim clerics from Egypt’s Al-Azhar U. — one of the oldest and most established centers of learning in Islam — have even capitalized on the interest in Obama’s visit by announcing the launch of their own TV channel, Al-Azhari. The satcaster, which will formally begin airing this August in time for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, will seek to espouse a moderate, tolerant message, as well as feature cartoons, Islamic soap operas and chatshows.

“In the age of Obama, we realized it was time to look at new ways to deliver our message,” said Sheik Khaled Al-Gindy, head of Al-Azhari’s board of directors.

If anything, managing local expectations may prove to be Obama’s biggest achievement, particularly given the region’s notoriously treacherous political landscape.

“People like Obama so far,” commented Abdelrahman Al-Rached. “Whether he can actually deliver is another matter.”