A squandered opportunity

A squandered opportunity

When he took office, US President Barack Obama made it a priority to restore US credibility after the damage done by his predecessor. Obama pledged to revamp America’s relationship with the Arab and Muslim worlds, raising hopes for a dramatic change in US policy.


Unfortunately, his administration’s actions have fallen well short of his eloquent words. People in the Middle East are accustomed to soaring rhetoric that leads nowhere. There’s a useful term for it: haki fadi—empty talk.

More than a year after his much-celebrated speech in Cairo, Obama is dangerously close to being full of haki fadi. He has failed to deliver on a crucial ambition: advancing democracy and human rights in the Arab world.

While Obama rejected the notion that Islam and democracy are incompatible, his administration has chosen to pursue regional stability at the expense of democratic reform. The administration is especially reluctant to disrupt its alliances with the region’s many authoritarian rulers, hoping that these autocrats can help broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement after decades of failure.

Obama said all the right things about democracy promotion in his Cairo speech. “America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election,” he said. “But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose.”

Yet Obama chose to deliver this message in Egypt. President Hosni Mubarak has been in power since 1981 under emergency laws that allow the regime to imprison dissidents without charge or trial, and to stifle peaceful political activity. As a strategic ally of Washington, Egypt receives nearly $1.8 billion a year in US assistance, making it the second-highest beneficiary of American foreign aid after Israel (excluding US spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan).

In May, Egypt extended the state of emergency for another two years. In 2005, it had promised to replace the emergency statutes with specific anti-terrorism laws. After the latest extension, the US State Department tepidly declared that it was “disappointed.”

The Obama administration inherited a decades-old US policy of supporting autocratic regimes in exchange for political acquiescence. Many governments in the region rely on vast secret police agencies to keep them in power, using the “war on terror” as a cover to silence any opposition. These regimes put on a veneer of stability for the West, but in reality their political systems are weak, corrupt and calcified.

It is these contradictions between US rhetoric and actions that lead people in the Middle East to distrust the United States and spin conspiracy theories about its motives.

When the United States continues backing autocrats, against the will of their people, then Washington loses much of its leverage to demand reform from other regimes like Iran and Syria.

Washington fears that supporting reform in the region would bring Islamist groups to power. Without any democratic space for popular-based political movements to emerge, Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood have the greatest influence through their social service networks. These well-organised groups would likely win any free balloting—so the autocratic rulers have a convenient bogeyman to avoid elections.

But democracy is not just about voting. It is a slow process of promoting individual rights and building up civil society, a free press, an independent judiciary and other state institutions. These efforts take time and they make a far less glamorous photo-op than a quick election.

Since Obama’s Cairo speech, his administration has remained remarkably quiet on democracy promotion and has been reluctant to criticise US allies. The administration has also blocked threats  from members of Congress to link future US aid to democratic reform or improvements in Egypt’s human rights record. The president and his aides regard these policies as political realism. People in the region see them as yet another example of the United States favouring expediency over real change.

It is not too late for Obama to change course. Egypt has two important elections coming up: a parliamentary vote in November and a presidential ballot a year later. The US administration must insist that the regime allow free and open elections, where opposition groups are able to field candidates without intimidation or the threat of arrest.

Obama has a tremendous capacity to elicit empathy. He has an opportunity to fundamentally change the Arab world’s perception of America. If he can make the United States a more sympathetic power—a country that sticks up for the little guy and does not tolerate repression—that will better serve American interests and security in the long run. But the last thing the Middle East needs is more empty talk.

Mohamad Bazzi is an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the US Council on Foreign Relations