Time for Obama to Start Delivering on Human Rights in Egypt

09/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

President Mubarak's White House meeting with President Obama today will be a test of the administration's new approach to human rights and democracy promotion strategy in Egypt and in the broader Arab region.

President Mubarak is said to have stayed away from Washington for the past six years to show his displeasure with the Bush administration's vociferous championing of human rights and democracy in his country. This is only partially true -- there was much else in Bush administration policy that the Egyptian government found unpalatable including: the neglect of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; the invasion of Iraq in the face of President Mubarak's publicly stated advice to the contrary; and, the Bush administration's apparent preference for Saudi Arabia as its principal Arab ally -- yet administration officials seem wedded to the mantra that taking a firm stand on human rights and democracy did not work. In fact, real progress in these areas was discernible between roughly 2003 and 2005, the high water mark of the Bush administration's Freedom Agenda.

While deprecating the previous administration's robust human rights and democracy rhetoric, the Obama team maintains that human rights and democracy promotion remains a priority in the U.S.-Egyptian bi-lateral relationship. Obama officials like to say "look at our results," rather than being carried away by the stirring words of President Bush's Second Inaugural Address or Secretary Rice's forthright speech at the American University in Cairo in June 2005.

It is questionable whether speaking out strongly is what was wrong with the Bush administration's human rights and democracy promotion policies -- a stark contrast between America's own practices and its prescriptions for other countries certainly did not help -- but the Obama administration is entitled to try a different approach, if it can deliver better results. Therein lies the challenge for President Obama and his foreign policy team as they meet with Egypt's leader: can they begin to show progress in country conditions on the ground in Egypt?

Egypt's fast approaching elections for the parliament in 2010 and for the presidency in 2011 provide a key test that will set the tone not only for the Obama administration's human rights and democracy promotion efforts, but also quite probably for Egypt's next presidency, if the octogenarian Mubarak chooses to step aside after 30 years in office. The Obama administration should take the opportunity of Mubarak's visit to urge the Egyptian government to make good on its promises to move forward with political reform by taking steps to ensure that the conditions in which forthcoming elections take place will be better than in 2005, when Egypt last held national elections.

Although the 2005 elections were marred by numerous irregularities and credible allegations of vote rigging and voter intimidation they did overall represent some progress in establishing the institutions necessary to give the Egyptian people a meaningful say in the way they are governed. Notably, as a result of a ruling by Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court, Egypt's judiciary was given powers to supervise elections and voting was spread over several days to enable judges to travel around the country to be present at all polling places. Egyptian civil society organizations were granted permission to carry out election monitoring and, for the first time, Egyptians were given the chance to vote for their president in a multi-candidate election.

Instead of building on the progress of 2005 the Egyptian government has taken steps to move backwards on providing for a credible election process. Should the forthcoming elections turn out to be less free and fair than their predecessors, then that would be a telling indicator that the Obama approach is not producing results on the ground.

President Obama should seek assurances from President Mubarak that: the forthcoming elections will feature credible independent supervision of the election process, especially in view of the fact that 2007 amendments to the Constitution have removed the judiciary from its former supervisory role; that the basic rights of the independent civil society activists to monitor and comment on the elections will be upheld; and, that the rights of opposition candidates to contest the elections free from harassment and official obstruction will be respected. President Obama should urge President Mubarak to invite reputable international election monitoring organizations to conduct evaluations in Egypt that would assist in identifying problems, support the work of local monitors and lay the groundwork for further improvements in the years ahead.

The more credible Egypt's elections, the firmer the foundation Egypt will have to move forward with an agenda of political reform and improved respect for human rights and the rule of law. Progress in advancing human rights and democracy in Egypt would have a positive impact on human rights conditions throughout the region. The Obama administration cannot afford to let slip this unique opportunity for effective human rights promotion.