Obama, Middle East and the Freedom Agenda

Obama, Middle East and the Freedom Agenda

Jackson Diehl in the Washington Post predicted the Obama administration will abandon Bush’s freedom agenda and democracy promotion in the Middle East, especially after we’ve seen its end results in the Palestinian elections. I think Mr. Diehle is right in his assesment of the incoming Obama administration.

I have listened to almost all of Obama’s major speeches and I never heard any mentioning of democracy promotion in the ME, or any plans to do so. Even on the his campaign website, Obama’s vision for the ME is focused on the peace process between Israel and Palestinians,war in Iraq, and Iran’s nuclear program. So, democracy promotion is not on Obama’s short term plans to protect U.S. interests in the ME.


If the Egyptian regime gives in to the U.S. demands by holding free and fair elections, most likely we will see the Muslim Brotherhood forming the new government. The question then: will the U.S. be willing to deal with an Islamic government that does not recognize Israel and opposes U.S. policies? Or will the U.S. isolate the new government and impose an economic and political blockade on 80 million Egyptians to punish them for their democratic choice?


I believe that this paradox in our foreign policy undermines our credibility to play any effective role in the future of democratization in the Middle East.


Mr. Diehle concluded that “Mubarak and other “pro-Western” autocrats seem to have drawn from Obama’s election: that the threat of U.S. pressure for political liberalization has passed”. Mr. Diehl has every reason to believe that the Democrats’’ policies will be more along the line of “stability and security outweighs democracy”, except that the sum will be zero, as we’ve learned on 9/11.


However, those who still believe that Ayman Nour is a viable opposition figure who can challenge President Mubarak, don’t really understand the psyche of the Egyptian people or the political dynamics in Egypt. Mr. Nour enjoys no public support and cannot be looked at as rallying factor in Egyptian politics. On the one hand, the public sympathizes with Mr. Nour for the injustice and suffering he has endured, and widely respects him for speaking up against government corruption and oppression. On the other hand, he is branded as “America’s man”, and in Egypt, like most other parts of the ME nowadays, that’s enough to undermine his scanty popularity and cost him the support he once enjoyed among the elite. Mr. Nour’s letter to then democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama seeking his support, was criticized by the opposition and the public who considered it humiliating for Mr. Nour and rejected the U.S. meddling in Egypt’s internal affairs.


The U.S. should keep a hands-off approach to Egyptian politics and don’t impose a model of change or implicitly support one opposition trend against the other, because it will automatically be rejected by the public which is highly skeptical of the U.S. agenda, resentful for its support of Israel, and the war in Iraq. Instead, the U.S. should make public diplomacy a priority and work on improving its image and combating anti-Americanism plaguing the ME, and threatening U.S. interests abroad and its security at home. The U.S should also be ready to respect people’s democratic choices and deal with freely elected governments even if they’re opposed to our policies, but they will be willing to cooperate and negotiate as long as there is recognition of mutual interests and we can find the common ground that bring all parties together. Even governments like Hamas and Iran can be contained through the negotiations and cooperation.


Unlike the West, the public opinion in the ME is highly emotional in general, and we’ve seen the reactions after the appointment of Rahm Emmanuel. However, the U.S. can use this to its advantage by engaging in aggressive public diplomacy. Words can do magic without even taking any actions, and that’s how the ME operates.