• Obama
  • January 6, 2010
  • 6 minutes read

Losing Cairo?

Losing Cairo?

Since Barack Obama’s speech six months ago, the Muslim world has begun to lose hope in the United States. But it’s not too late … yet.

Six months after U.S. President Barack Obama’s widely heralded speech in Cairo, young people in the Middle East are beginning to lose patience with his administration. That’s bad news for the hope that the United States might mark a new beginning with Muslim communities. From Marrakesh to Tehran, two out of every three people in the Middle East are under the age of 30. To a very large degree, the future of U.S. relations with the Muslim world rests in their hands.

Last month, I traveled to Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt to speak with some of the region’s top young civic leaders about U.S. policies and their recommendations for the Obama administration. I arrived well aware of how important their opinions are; wherever young people’s hopes are overwhelmed by frustrations — whether the inability to land a job or the visceral sense that theirs is a world of repression and injustice — the United States and its allies will be less secure. And here’s what I heard: While the president’s election and speech in Cairo were surprisingly well-received, the administration’s glaring lack of follow-up has led to mounting disappointment.

Across the Middle East, Obama elicited surprisingly positive responses in public opinion surveys early in his administration, and Middle Eastern youth were particularly receptive. They saw in his identity as much as in his words the hope of change.

By now, however, disappointment is beginning to set in. The president’s inability to rein in Israeli settlements in the months since the Cairo speech is one chief complaint. But there’s more. In that message, pointedly directed at the region’s people and not just their governments, Obama also raised four key “human dignity” issues: democracy, religious freedom, women’s rights, and development. Since then, the administration has done almost nothing to back those words up with actions, a fact that has not gone unnoticed.

To be fair, the United States faces an uphill battle. Authoritarian leaders from Morocco to Tunisia to Jordan, each bent on staying in power indefinitely, have worked diligently to close down rallies, civic organizations, and any hint of political space in recent years. The situation worsened after Washington downgraded its diplomatic support for democratization in the region in mid-2006 after Hamas narrowly won elections in the Palestinian territories. Three years later, Washington finds itself with fewer civil society partners than it might have otherwise had.

Unfortunately, rather than standing up to such authoritarians to try to reverse the tides, Obama seems to be caving to pressure. Strongman leaders such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad bet that, because of their importance to U.S. diplomatic goals in the region, they could pressure the White House to reduce its support for civil society groups in their respective countries.

The administration complied. In its budget proposal for fiscal year 2010, passed Dec. 13 by Congress, the administration requested significant cuts in democracy and governance aid for civic groups working for change in both countries. And in Egypt, the administration appears now to have agreed that aid programs will fund only groups the Egyptian government has officially approved. Those moves come in stark contrast to the Cairo speech, which paired concern for human dignity with a rejection of the idea that democracy can be promoted by force.  Unfortunately, in all but words, the administration is coming up woefully short.

Consider the follow-up speech U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made last month at a regional summit in Morocco. Clinton explained to her audience that though the Cairo speech was intended to launch a comprehensive new beginning between the United States and Muslim communities, the administration had decided, upon further reflection, that it would focus on only three areas of development: entrepreneurship, science and technology, and education. Democracy, religious freedom, and women’s rights did not appear as part of the Cairo follow-up plans.

If one takes the charitable view, we might commend the administration for finding “shovel-ready” projects. By focusing on entrepreneurship, science, science and technology, and education, the administration found initiatives that got Arab government support. But there’s a problem here that the region’s young people quickly point out: The easy targets aren’t necessarily the important ones. While Clinton correctly highlights jobs as a key issue in the Middle East — particularly jobs for unemployed youth — Washington does the region no favors by offering an entrepreneurship summit, one of its new initiatives, while avoiding the root problems hindering business such as political decay and corruption. The United States will need to do far more if it hopes to demonstrate a sincere commitment to encouraging broad-based development of the sort that actually affects people’s lives.

My conversations with young activists in the region continue to give me hope that the Obama administration has a unique opportunity to shift perceptions of the United States among youth in the Middle East. But doing so will require effective new initiatives on the goals the president raised in his Cairo speech, including democracy, religious freedom, women’s rights, and development. And it will require sustained efforts to listen and respond to the region’s people — not just their governments.