Why Cairo Believes Obama's Democracy Support is Nothing More than Empty Words

06/02/2010 11:38 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

One year ago, President Obama addressed the Muslim world in a speech in Cairo, in which he professed his commitment to democracy and human rights as well as respectful engagement. Activists across the region, who have faced enormous obstacles in their work and in many cases threats to their lives, cautiously celebrated the historic speech and Muslims around the world hoped the president's message of change could spread to their own countries. One year later, observers in the Middle East region note that changes have occurred, though not in the way they had expected.

Americans are fond of saying that actions speak louder than words. Over the past year in Egypt, the actions of the Obama Administration have drowned out their words. Shortly after the speech last June, USAID, the primary funder of US democracy efforts, announced that it would no longer provide money to Egyptian civil society groups who were not registered with the government, essentially giving Mubarak and his regime veto power over U.S. support for civil society (since many groups are denied registration if the government does not like their message). Furthermore, the Administration re-opened discussions with the Egyptian Government to establish a U.S.-Egyptian Endowment which would funnel all American economic assistance for Egypt into a fund, outside of the annual Congressional approval process, and strip any ties to democracy and human rights protection.

In May, when Egypt once again extended its 28-year long emergency rule, the Administration seemed to wake from its slumber and offered tempered but welcome words of criticism, calling the decision "regrettable." Yet, one day later the Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit publicly dismissed the criticism, saying that the American statements were aiming at "calming U.S. human rights groups and media," and that the Egyptian-U.S. partnership will be "unaffected" by the decision. And it appears that he is right.

Despite claims that it curtailed the powers of the emergency law and would restrict its use to cases of terrorism and drug trafficking, the Egyptian Government quickly demonstrated that this is not really the case. Less than two weeks after its extension, the Egyptian government arrested eight people under emergency law, for collecting signatures to call for electoral reforms. This is especially troubling as Egypt gears up for a series of important elections, beginning with the Shura Council, the lower body of parliament, on June 1.

As they face a year of important elections, Egyptian democrats find themselves without a support system in their fight against government repression in part, due to American ambivalence. One Egyptian pillar of democratic values has been its judiciary, but a constitutional amendment in 2007 ended judicial review of elections. Combined with the reduction in support to domestic observers, there will be an absence of substantial, independent local and international monitoring groups, in comparison to the 2005 elections.

America's lackluster support for democracy in Egypt comes at a particularly precarious time. President Hosni Mubarak, who has been in power for almost 30 years, is in failing health with no clear successor in place. Presidential elections, though largely a sham in the past, are set for 2011.

Amongst a population that has little love for the former Bush Administration, some Middle East activists are beginning to look fondly back to that era of outspoken democracy promotion. The Bush democracy agenda was unsuccessful because it was tainted with an unnecessary war and antagonistic posturing. Yet, at least there was a democracy assistance agenda. Despite lofty words, the Obama Administration has yet to produce a clear policy to promote democracy and human rights in a region that decidedly lacks both. Today, many Arab democrats are beginning to feel nostalgic about Bush's tainted, inconsistent agenda, over a nonexistent Obama policy.

The current administration's lack of support for democracy has emboldened the Egyptian government, while growing dissatisfaction with lack of follow through has mounted up among Egyptian democrats. If the US administration is serious about supporting reform efforts in Egypt, they need to align their actions with their words, and demonstrate to the Egyptian Government that democracy and human rights are a true priority.