President Obama outlines plans for aid in Egypt and Middle East

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a speech on Mid East and North Africa policy in the Ben Franklin Room at the State Department May 19, 2011 in Washington D.C.

Kai Ryssdal: There was an economic nugget wrapped inside the president's speech on the Middle East today. In between announcing $2 billion for Egypt and a promise to help the region overall grow economically, he said you just can't base a lasting economic strategy on stuff that comes out of the ground.

Barack Obama: If you take out oil exports, this entire region of over 400 million people exports roughly the same amount as Switzerland.

To explore what the president's speech might actually mean in Egypt and the region, we've called Magda Kandil. She's the director of the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies in Cairo. Dr. Kandil, good to have you with us.

Magda Kandil: Thank you very much for having me.

Ryssdal: This speech was, in some measure, about economics as a way to get to the politics of it, as a way to get the Middle East toward democracy. Is what the president outlined today enough to do that or at least get things started?

Kandil: It's quite enough to get things started. The situation has become difficult for the government of Egypt, not having the resources to cope with the many other priorities that the government should embark on at this point. I don't think the United States government would do a lot of favor or help this economy by extending assistance in the form of current spending by the government of Egypt. I think priorities should be homegrown, promise to change a point of view. I think what the president outlined is correct -- that as an economic partner, I want to help you stabilize your situation, but I think the best form to help the social agenda of this country is to help create jobs.

Ryssdal: The president said today he wants this not to be a package of assistance, but he wants it to be trade and a partnership. What's that going to look like? How is he going to help the Egyptian economy grow that way?

Kandil: Actually, this is the best component of what has come out today from Washington, because we're not talking about short-term assistance in the form of debt forgiveness -- it's timely, it's needed, no one would argue around this. But also what you need is having a long-lasting partnership, and this is what happens when American investors would bring their money to this economy, capitalizing on the potential for growth and knowing that capitalizing on the strategic location that serves as a gateway to Africa, to the Middle East and across to Europe.

Ryssdal: Would you characterize this as a big change in America's economic approach to Egypt and the Middle East?

Kandil: I think so. I think this is a golden opportunity for the United States to boost its image. And for the longest time, the United States policy has been focused on the political dimension, and the United States has been very generous in extent to financial assistance. But oftentimes, the average person on the street did not feel the benefits of this assistance in a very tangible way that would touch upon their personal lives. But this will directly go to the average person on the street; they would feel that as the economy is growing, there's a partner that cares about them and their future as well.

Ryssdal: One last thing: this was obviously the big news story of the day over here, right at the very top of the headlines. What was it like over in Cairo? Were there a lot of people watching this speech, do you think?

Kandil: The timing of it was evening time, Cairo time, and this is also the beginning of the weekend. I'm not sure that it has gained as much attention as the first speech, when he was here in Cairo and delivered his speech. It's no secret that people have become cynical again that the promises have been broken, two years have passed, nothing has moved. But I wouldn't worry much about this. I think the action plan that follows this speech, I think, is more important, that could help work out a lot of differences.

Ryssdal: Magda Kandil is the executive director of the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies. We reached her, obviously, in Cairo today. Dr. Kandil, thank you for your time.

Kandil: Thank you very much for having me.

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