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Neil Hicks Headshot

Getting Half the Message on the Middle East

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In the coming weeks, President Obama is expected to meet with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak as part of a round of meetings with regional leaders geared towards resuscitating the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. This meeting and a likely follow-up in Egypt soon thereafter will set the tone for the bi-lateral relationship between the new U.S. administration and Egypt. The meeting will also provide an early indication of the importance the new administration will attach to human rights and democracy promotion for the Arab region as a whole.

The Obama administration has acted swiftly to present a more conciliatory face of U.S. policy to the people of the Middle East. Justifiably alarmed by America's plunging popularity in the region, the administration appears to have taken to heart the view that much of this discontent was caused by unpopular U.S. policies including: the war in Iraq, the tactics pursued in the so-called "Global War on Terror" -- thoroughly discredited by the Abu Ghraib scandal, revelations about the use of torture by U.S. interrogators and the regime of indefinite detention without trial epitomized by the Guantanamo Bay detention center, and perceived uncritical support for the State of Israel in its continuing conflict with the Palestinians.

In response to concerns about these policies the Obama administration has announced its intention to draw down U.S. military forces in Iraq; to close Guantanamo and to end the use of torture and secret detention centers; and to work toward a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

All of these steps have been welcomed in the region. President Obama also scores high marks for making a point of addressing an Arabic speaking audience directly in an early interview with the Al-Arabiya satellite television network and for his frequent respectful references to Islam and Muslims in his speeches, such as those he delivered during his visit to Turkey in April. As in many other parts of the globe, the new president enjoys considerable popularity in the Arab world, probably much more than the kings and presidents who rule the Arab countries.

Despite these advantages and positive gestures, the Obama administration is in danger of missing one of the most important contributory factors to the widespread unpopularity of the United States in the region in recent years -- the perception that the United States is the power behind the throne of the region's unpopular autocratic rulers.

Administration officials now argue that President Bush's strident calls for greater freedom in the region achieved little and that a different approach is needed, but such a conclusion is not shared by many human rights activists in Egypt and other Arab countries. They do not fault President Bush for calling on their rulers to change their autocratic ways and for calling for more freedom and democracy. In fact, they see the problem as being not too much U.S. pressure for change, but too little, since the Bush administration reverted to the traditional stability first approach and eased back on exerting pressure on the Freedom Agenda as events in the region overwhelmed its ambitions half way through Bush's second term.

Local activists do find much to fault President Bush for. They note the irony of the U.S. government urging its allies to uphold human rights while violating them itself, an irony that is even darker when it emerges that the torture cells of the same repressive governments the administration was urging to reform were the destination of U.S. detainees subject to extraordinary rendition. The context of making democracy and human rights promotion part of the Global War on Terror discredited these values in the eyes of much of its intended audience, which makes it even more remarkable that progress was made at all, and yet it was.

Under concerted and sustained U.S. pressure between 2003 and 2005, despite all the adverse circumstances of the time, repressive Arab governments, including Egypt, made important concessions that benefited and emboldened local activists. These concessions resulted in noticeable advances in human rights conditions. In Egypt, these included the publication of more independent newspapers, the emergence of an active and visible online human rights community and the proliferation of independent human rights organizations.

The Obama administration is not burdened with the unpopular baggage of its predecessor and enjoys a level of goodwill that the Bush administration could only dream about. This condition may not last forever, of course, especially once the administration becomes embroiled in the minutiae of Middle East peacemaking, but, for now, President Obama has the opportunity to speak out on the urgent need for human rights progress in the Arab world from a position of relative strength.

One way the new President can ensure that his popularity in the region is not short-lived is to make clear in his meetings with President Mubarak and his public speeches in Egypt that promoting human rights and democracy in Egypt and the region remains a policy priority for the United States.