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Obama’s Challenge In Cairo

As President Obama prepares for his historic speech in Cairo next week, he faces a dual challenge--not only to redefine the troubled relations between the United States and the Muslim world, but also to clarify the place of democracy and human rights in his administration's foreign policy. The former would have been the centerpiece of his first speech in an Islamic nation no matter where he had chosen to deliver it. But it was the selection of Egypt as his venue that made the latter unavoidable.

After all, it was in Egypt, in June of 2005, that then-Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice delivered a ringing address in support of democracy-building through the Middle East, triggering a wave of democratic activism in Egypt and other Muslim countries. And after Islamist gains in the region--most notably in the 2006 Palestinian elections--she returned to Egypt, in 2007, to give another speech widely interpreted as signaling a retreat from the visionary democratic aspirations of George W. Bush's second inaugural. Since then, the Egyptian government has intensified its repression of opposition forces--and neither the Bush administration nor (apparently) the Obama administration has raised much of a fuss.

The early evidence suggests that President Obama has chosen--or feels compelled--to reduce the emphasis on democracy promotion and to put economic and security concerns first. Given the gravity and urgency of the problems in these areas, the administration's stance is understandable, perhaps even inevitable. But Secretary of State Clinton's blunt statements to that effect have evoked negative reactions in many quarters. A March 10 Washington Post editorial accused her of undercutting her own department's criticisms of Egypt's repressive policies, and Egyptian human rights groups accused her of giving the Mubarak regime a "green light" to intensify them. The State Department immediately shot back with an unusually strong response, denying that Clinton had downplayed these issues and characterizing her policy as a change of means, not ends. "We are going to continue to push," said a high-ranking spokesman, "but ... we want to be more effective than previous administrations have been. ... You've got to try to come up with ways that you can use--the media or other elements of society--to [exert] influence in a positive direction."

So it seems fair to scrutinize the forthcoming trip to Egypt for early evidence of this new and allegedly more effective strategy--but challenges await. The administration is hoping to enlist the Egyptian government as a more active partner in peacemaking throughout the region, and an aging President Mubarak, increasingly preoccupied with succession, may well take umbrage at words or deeds he views as strengthening the hand of his domestic adversaries. At the same time, Obama basically agrees with former President Bush's thesis that the United States has paid a heavy price for its support of authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East. How artfully the president balances these competing considerations will go a long way toward determining whether his trip succeeds in putting America's relations with the Muslim world on a more productive and sustainable course.

So what could President Obama do during his sojourn in Egypt to signal American concerns in new and more effective ways, and what should we be looking for? Here are a few benchmarks.

  • Consistent with the overall case he presents, will the president discuss democracy and human rights during his formal address to the Muslim world?
  • Will he also bring up these concerns during private meetings with President Mubarak, and if he does, will his entourage take steps to publicize this fact?
  • Will he meet with well-known dissidents, opposition leaders such as Ayman Nour, and representatives of beleaguered independent groups?
  • Will he insist on the right of the United States to fund whatever Egyptian groups it chooses, whether or not the Egyptian government has officially recognized and certified them?

If President Obama does these things, his administration can credibly claim to have put in place a democracy and human rights strategy that may well prove more effective than his predecessor's blunt confrontation with the status quo. If he does not, it will be much harder for him to maintain that his new policy changes only means, and not our goals as well.