President Obama's decision to give a speech in Egypt on June 4th, one of the most authoritarian regimes and unpopular governments in the Middle East, was surprising, no doubt. Many thought he would choose Indonesia, the biggest moderate Muslim country. But what should the President say, and do, in Cairo to make the best of his trip?
First of all, President Obama has to show that Egypt is the right choice. Many say it's not. On May 8, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, called Egypt "the heart of the Arab world". That's right. But Arabs constitute approximately 10 percent of the Muslims worldwide. Also, as Olivier Roy, the prominent French scholar of Islam told me, "Muslims belong to different nationalities and have different interests. From Indonesia, as the biggest Muslim country, to Lebanon, Afghanistan, Somalia and Muslims in the United States and Europe, they have different interests and concerns." Plus, all Arabs are not Muslim. Obama should clarify whether he meant to address the issues of the Arab World, which Egypt is rightly the biggest and certainly the most influential country amongst them, or the Muslim world?
Secondly, the trip is designed to help the United States to restore its image in the Muslim countries of the Middle East, while also addressing the United States concerns. According to the latest's surveys, Obama has the least favorable approval rating in Egypt compared to Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Jordan, and Lebanon.
It's not surprising; the police state of President Mubarak has, for decades, suppressed democratic movement, press, civil society and political parties from the secular left to the Muslim Brotherhood. Many in Egypt and beyond believe that President Mubarak could not continue his oppressive regime, or at least not to the current degree of oppression, without the support of the U.S. government. The United States' blind support for Mubarak has been seen as the fundamental reason for the continuation of Mubarak dynasty fueling strong anti-American sentiment in one of the most influential countries in the Arab world, which is in contrary Obama's objectives. Furthermore, President Mubarak will use President Obama's trip as a tool to improve his image and perpetuate his power.
Having said that, we get to the third point; Obama seems to have picked Egypt just for political reasons not philosophical or intellectual reasons. Like his decision to banning the release of the pictures of Abu-Ghraib which was inconsistent with his previous statements throughout his campaign.
As Mark Danner, a professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley and the author of Torture and Truth: America, Abu-Ghraib, and the War on Terror told me, "One not much noticed fact is that this no doubt worked into Obama's decision not to release the so-called "torture" photographs. They would have come out just before he arrived in Cairo and the images probably would have dominated the news." To put it nicely, it means, that when it comes time to choose between politics and principals, the President may choose the former. But the reason people love him all around the world is because he is not just the same old politician, but more importantly because they believe Obama is a man of principal.
That's why he should not give President Mubarak a free ride. If spreading democracy is the cornerstone of the United States foreign policy, it cannot just pertain to the "enemy", it must also apply to "friends".
President Obama's reasons to satisfy Mubarak (who did not have a close relationship to President Bush during his second term) is one of the major players in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which is understandable; the United States and Israel want to have Mubarak on their side at any cost, simply because the alternative might not be as friendly to Tel Aviv. But such a linear approach just perpetuates the United State's support of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.
In his speech in Cairo, President Obama should ask President Mubarak for a democratic reform or at least a kind of political reform that gives more freedom to the regime's critics and political opposition. The United States mission to spread democracy in the world, will seem hypocritical when simultaneously most of its allies in the Middle East are dictators and lifelong Kings or Presidents.
Obama would be wise to consider that thirty years ago, a few months before Iran's Islamic revolution, in a trip to Tehran, Jimmy Carter described the Shah's regime as the island of stability in the Middle East, ignoring the regime's deep crisis in the society and a revolution behind the door. What was the result? The United States' blind support of the Shah made anti-Americanism the centerpiece of the next regime. Supporting dictators might be helpful for some certain objectives in the short run but as a long-term foreign policy strategy, the U.S. will face a natural backlash. Obama is wise enough not to ignore history and its lessons.
As Reza Aslan, the prominent religious scholar and the author of No God But God told me, "Obama should have chosen Indonesia, which is not only the largest Muslim country in the world, but a thriving democracy and just had an amazing elections, and a country that represent the future of Islam, not Egypt."
But now that the decision is made, there are ways to make the best of it. He just has to trust his gut and make his politics mirror his principals.
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