The streets of Cairo are lined with police, thousands of them, standing erect every 20 or 40 feet, facing away from traffic to look for threats, even if that means looking directly at a wall. Instead of gun holsters, most wear water canteens on their belts.
At Cairo University, where Obama is set to speak, American protesters from Code Pink, the peace group that is a fixture of Capitol Hill, have set up shop with a bull horn, announcing that they have a letter from the Hamas government in Gaza that they would like to deliver to President Obama. (The Ministry of Information tightly controls permits for protests by Egyptians.) Several waves of security checks greeted attendees, including two magnetometers, three separate stations for the inspections of bags, and a dog sniff. Several hours before Obama was set to arrive, the Arabic cable network Al Jazeera interviewed a group of men outside the main hall. Another reporter identified the men as unofficial members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned group in Egypt, who the United States has invited to attend.
The site of the speech is the university’s main auditorium, a gilded theater with two rows of balconies and a stage backed by red curtains. In the front rows, a group of Sunni Muslim clerics sat in prime seats, each of them wearing wrapped red and white turbans. The historical name for the room is the Gamal Abdel Nasser Hall, named for the former president of Egypt, who led the country between 1956 and 1970. In the early 1970s, the hall became the site of clashes between student protesters and the government, after then-President Anwar Sadat gave an four-hour address on Egyptian foreign policy here. Student groups, who wanted a more aggressive stance towards Israel, later took over the hall, and had to be forcibly removed by the Interior Ministry. Academic freedom remains an issue in Egypt, with the state appointing deans at universities, and restricting academic travel. In October, a blogger named Ahmed Abdel Kawi, who was a third-year journalism student at Cairo University, lost his university housing after criticizing government policy on his blog.
Obama’s aides say he continued to work on his speech even as Air Force One flew in the early morning hours from Riyadh to Cairo. “He got engaged in this at a very early point and has basically provided all of the vision for what should be in the speech and a lot of the content,” said Ben Rhodes, one of Obama’s senior speechwriters on Wednesday in Riyadh. “For the last week he’s really just been frequently holed up with his draft and editing it very heavily.”