White House invites Arab bloggers to Obama’s Middle East speech

By Joby Warrick, The Washington Post

Of the dozens of journalists covering the speech live from the State Department, few had a greater personal stake in President Obama’s words on the Middle East than Ammar Abdulhamid.

The 44-year-old Marylander is a Syrian exile and democratic activist who contributes to several blogs closely followed by his former countrymen in Syria, where a brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters has left hundreds dead. From the minute Obama began his much-anticipated speech on Thursday, Abdulhamid’s cell phone buzzed with emails and texts from readers anxious to learn details.

“When is he going to mention Syria?” one wanted to know.

“People are following this very closely,” said Abdulhamid, whose blogs include one titled “Syrian Revolution Digest.” “After the sanctions [against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] were announced last night there were celebrations in parts of Damascus. I think there will more celebrations today.”

It was no accident that the Abdulhamid was among the audience that assembled in the State Department’s opulent Roosevelt Room for the president’s hour-long address. White House officials invited numerous Arab journalists and bloggers to witness the speech, and it sought to engage scores of others in a separate White House “Twitter Chat” immediately afterward.

The chat, hosted by Deputy National National Security Ben Rhodes, was part of a larger effort to tap into the same kinds of social media used by youthful organizers of “Arab Spring” uprisings throughout the Middle East.

Obama paid tribute in his speech to the power of social networking, which he partly credited for the overthrow of two authoritarian governments in Egypt and Tunisia, with others possibly still to come.

“Cell phones and social networks allow young people to connect and organize like never before,” Obama said. “And so a new generation has emerged. And their voices tell us that change cannot be denied.”

Not all Middle Eastern participants in the White House chat were enthusiastic about the president’s words.

“We wanted Obama to directly call on [Yemeni President Ali Abdullah] Saleh to leave office. He did not do that. This is wrong,” opined one Yemeni in a “tweet.”

“Last Sunday in Ramallah, I saw young Palestinian embrace unarmed resistance. I saw Israel attack them with US made-tear gas/bullets,” a Palestinian wrote.

A common refrain was skepticism that White House words would translate into concrete actions. Even Obama’s announcement on Wednesday of new economic sanctions against Syria was criticized by some Arab commentators as merely a symbolic gesture, unlikely to cause real pain for Syria’s leaders.

But Abdulhamid, the Syrian whose blog chronicles deadly attacks by the Assad government on civilians, said symbolism is important, too.

“It shows that there is finally international support for our demands,” he said.

To Abdulhamid, the president was on a roll. And as the Syrian departed the State Department to work on his next blog entry, he could already anticipate what might happen next.

“The next logical step,” he said, “is to call for Assad to step down.”

Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.