Cairo is the wrong choice for Obama
Like a grandmaster positioning his pieces for the first attack, President Obama has diligently prepared the ground for his own entrance into the murky waters of Middle Eastern diplomacy. He has dispatched Hillary Clinton to Israel, Egypt and Lebanon, sent his envoys to Syria and hosted Jordan”s King Abdullah in Washington. Now the White House has announced the final move in this opening gambit: Obama”s first visit to the region as president will be a policy speech in Egypt on 4 June. Though next week”s Washington meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu might prove more significant in the evolution of the administration”s Middle East policy, the Egypt address provides the US with a public opportunity to rebuild its damaged reputation and chart a new course in the region. However, by selecting the corrupt and authoritarian regime in Cairo as host, Obama risks undermining his own message of reconciliation and change.
Following on from his successful delivery in Ankara, deciding to speak publicly in the combustible Arab Middle East is a courageous and laudable decision by Obama. The White House, in explaining why Egypt was chosen from among the Arab states, claimed it to be the “heart of the Arab world”, being the most populous and, potentially, powerful state in the region. In what is a symbolic departure from the past, Obama will avoid Israel in his first trip to the region. Perhaps he hopes that this, combined with his renewed message of peace, will attract the same crowds and adulation as he received in Berlin during his election campaign.
Though selecting a dictatorial state with a poor human rights record as a platform for this speech does leave it open to criticism, the administration insists that the ends justify the means. “The scope of the speech,” insisted White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, “is bigger than where the speech was going to be given or who”s the leadership of the country.” Some could argue that Washington has slim pickings to choose from, given the authoritarian nature of virtually all the Arab regimes, and Obama could even use his address to criticise the heavy-handed Mubarak regime. “The issues of democracy and human rights … are on the president”s mind,” confirmed Gibbs.
Yet such an approach is naive at best. No matter how symbolic or dramatic the text, it will still be seen as Obama”s endorsement of the Mubarak regime. If the White House genuinely believes that the speech”s content outweighs any negativity brought on by the policies of the host country, why not make it in Beirut, Damascus or Riyadh? The answer is that domestic criticism of the president would be far greater if he were to publicly support these governments. Whether it is intended or not, Hosni Mubarak will bask in the US president”s glow. Cairo”s use of the forthcoming trip to try to legitimate the octogenarian”s police state is sadly inevitable.
This will prompt fears of Washington opting for pragmatism over principle. At his inauguration, Obama told “those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent” that “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist”. Yet Mubarak has done no such unclenching. No positive reforms have been made and Egypt remains authoritarian. Even in the short time that Obama has been in office hundreds of people have been held without trial following the Gaza war protests.
Perhaps this endorsement is a reward for Egypt”s constant mediation in talks between Hamas and Fatah. Yet this role should not be overstated. The Gaza war demonstrated Cairo”s true colours in the Israel-Palestine conflict and it is highly likely that the success of these negotiations hinges on external events in Washington, Tel Aviv and Damascus. Egypt might be doing a good job of playing babysitter while the real politics is thrashed out elsewhere, but surely that”s the least Washington can ask for the $1.3bn a year it gives in aid.
In addition to this, the administration seems to have overlooked or be woefully unaware of the level of Mubarak”s unpopularity outside Egypt, and how it may reflect badly on Obama. The Gaza war saw him criticised and even mocked regularly in the media of Palestine, Lebanon and Syria: the very populations Washington wishes to win over.
In contrast, Jordan would seem a more acceptable choice for the speech. While Amman”s concrete blocks might lack the glamour (and pollution) of Cairo, it is geographically closer to the real “heart of the Arab world”, the Israel-Palestine conflict. More importantly, while the regime is far from democratic, it is more benign than in Egypt. Moreover, Obama has already developed links with King Abdullah, a leader who has shown a greater willingness to domestically reform than Mubarak.
Pessimists will see the Cairo address as Obama abandoning the ideals set out in his inauguration for the sake of regional stability, while optimists will hope that his miracle-working speech writers can turn the situation around with a delivery true to those principles, over the head of his host. What is certain is that by choosing Cairo, the new president has taken a gamble. No matter how spectacular his rhetoric in June, winning over the Arab and Muslim world will need results on the ground in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan that could take years to achieve. In contrast, public endorsement of the Mubarak dictatorship could discredit him in their eyes far more quickly