Egypt Dissidents Ask Obama To Push Arab Democracy
Egyptian opposition activists called for US President Barack Obama to uphold democratic principles when he visits Cairo this week, voicing concern that he will not be meeting any dissidents.
Obama plans to use his much-anticipated address in Cairo to improve relations with the Islamic world, where the image of the United States has taken a battering over an unpopular war in Iraq and perceived bias towards Israel.
But his push for better relations with Arab and Muslim governments, often strained during his predecessor George W. Bush”s eight years in office, risks marginalising reformers, they say.
“We are astonished with the approach that ignores civil society and political parties,” said Egypt”s best-known dissident Ayman Nur, who ran and lost against veteran President Hosni Mubarak in a 2005 election.
The US authorities are tight-lipped about details of Obama”s programme, but no meetings have yet been scheduled with political dissidents in Egypt, where Mubarak has enjoyed almost absolute power since 1981.
“We see there is a retreat from campaign promises (on democracy promotion) and that there is an attempt to separate American principles and American interests,” said Nur.
Nur was convicted on forgery charges a few months after challenging Mubarak and spent three years of a five-year sentence in jail. Many observers said the charges were fraudulent and Bush was among those who called for his release.
Before heading to the Middle East Obama said in an interview with the BBC that the United States cannot impose its values on other countries, and had to lead by example.
“The danger I think is when the United States or any country thinks that we can simply impose these values on another country with a different history and a different culture,” the president told the broadcaster.
“I think the thing that we can do most importantly is serve as a good role model,” said the US president, pointing to his administrations plans to close the Guantanamo prison camp, which has also been a source of anger in the Muslim world.
After a meeting with young Egyptian democracy activists in Washington last month, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: “We will always raise democracy and human rights. It is a core pillar of American foreign policy.”
“It is in Egypt”s interest to move more toward democracy and to exhibit more respect for human rights,” she told reporters.
But analysts say the United States is moving away from democracy promotion, a tenet of Bush”s rhetoric on the Middle East and a previous source of friction with allies such as Egypt, because Washington wants support for other priorities, including countering Iran”s nuclear programme.
“There is a substantial shift in US foreign policy when it comes to democracy promotion,” said Amr Hamzawy, an analyst with the Carnegie Middle East Centre and an expert on US and Egyptian relations.
“There is real linking between American policy and strategic interests. The US wants to move away from the tensions that existed in the past eight years,” he said.
“The administration is in a situation in which it needs to reestablish cooperation with governments in the Arab world,” said Hamzawy.
“And to reestablish, you have to accept that their behaviour does not correspond to American values such as democracy.”
Dissidents warned that any US policy favouring regime stability over democracy promotion will ultimately backfire.
“It is a mistake to separate American interests and American values, that would lead to disastrous consequences,” said Essam el-Erian, a senior member of Egypt”s largest opposition grouping, the Muslim Brotherhood.
“American policies that supported dictatorships led in the end to an increase in extremism,” Erian added.
The Muslim Brotherhood is officially banned in Egypt but fields candidates as independents in parliamentary elections and controls around a fifth of seats in parliament. Its members are regularly arrested en masse.
The Muslim Brotherhood website offered tips for Obama in Cairo, including a call to criticise Mubarak and “the despotic Arab regimes”.
“Choosing Cairo is a generous reward for the Mubarak regime, which has not succeeded in the past 25 years in holding, not even one, truly democratic and fair election, unless a genuine critique of his regime while you are in Cairo is at hand,” the website said.