• Obama
  • June 3, 2009
  • 7 minutes read

Obama in Egypt: A Vision for Democracy Promotion

Obama in Egypt: A Vision for Democracy Promotion

President Barack Obama”s historic address to the Muslim world in Cairo tomorrow offers a prime opportunity to outline a new U.S. vision for democracy and human rights in the region. To accomplish this goal, Obama must firmly reject the notion that safeguarding America”s strategic interests in the Middle East somehow runs counter to the goal of advancing political reform. Instead he must craft a balanced message that recognizes that reform is synonymous with U.S. interests in the region.

Unfortunately, if early signs are any indication, the president seems to be striking the wrong balance. The delayed appointments of key democracy promotion and human rights officials — including the administrator for the Agency of International Development and the assistant secretary of state for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor — suggest that the issue is simply not a high priority.

Policy statements and decisions by top officials are sending a more disturbing signal. In February, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that China”s adherence to global human rights standards, or lack thereof, can”t interfere with larger economic and security concerns. The administration has even acceded to Egyptian demands that economic assistance not be used to support civil society groups and has slashed funds for democracy promotion by 60 percent. The Obama administration seems to be falling into the same trap that has plagued U.S. foreign policy for decades: placing short-term strategic concerns above the long-term imperative to press for reform.

In fairness, Obama has offered a broad and progressive approach to the Middle East aimed at tackling the region”s most intractable challenges. In his first overseas interview with Al Arabiya and his historic address in Turkey, Obama signaled that the United States would do more listening and less dictating in the region.

But it is not enough to engage with the region”s often unaccountable and autocratic leaders. Obama must also reach out to those advocating for change. The right words from a new American president can have a powerful impact on the cause of political reform in the Middle East. Of course, given America”s stained image and complicated strategic interests in the region, striking the proper balance is often easier said than done. Obama”s speech in Cairo must combine several key elements.

First, President Obama should avoid hyperbole and instead lay out an achievable reform agenda. President George W. Bush”s constant linking of democracy to the war on terror and even regime change — not to mention the yawning chasm between his words and America”s actions — fatally undermined his Freedom Agenda. Obama must speak in more measured tones that reflect the reality of Middle East politics. He must not promise advocates of reform more than can be delivered. But at the same time, he must put the region”s leaders on notice that they cannot continue to drag their feet on real reform.

Second, Obama”s reform agenda must move beyond the Bush administration”s simplistic fixation on elections. A free and fair ballot is crucial for a true democratic transformation, but it is only one step in the process. It is even more important that Obama push autocratic leaders to support the infrastructure of democracy — including adherence to the rule of law and non-interference with civil society groups, independent media and non-violent political groups. He must insist that they provide their citizens with the political space that will allow democratic practices to flourish. And he should put muscle behind these words by making progress on these fronts a key metric for future foreign assistance.

President Obama must also recognize that in the Arab Middle East, Islamist political movements play an integral role in advancing democracy. Too many U.S. policymakers have bought into the notion that equates democracy in the Arab World with conceding power to jihadist Islamic movements, ignoring the millions of people who support Islamist and democratic parties while opposing terrorism. So long as Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt reject violence as a political tool and accept basic democratic principles, the United States should not shun them, but instead recognize their important role in advancing reform.

Beyond his words, President Obama should take two additional policy steps. First, he should place a high priority on ensuring that any security assistance and intelligence cooperation programs with Arab regimes promote better human rights practices and encourage more transparent oversight of the region”s security services. Second, via the National Endowment for Democracy, multilateral initiatives such as the U.N. Democracy Fund and other assistance tools, the Obama administration must offer greater support for non-governmental actors and democracy advocates in the region. Democratic evolution in the Middle East will come not from the region”s leaders, but from its people. The United States must use its aid dollars to provide them with a helping hand.

President Obama has taken important steps toward rebuilding America”s image in the world, and addressing urgent policy challenges in the Middle East. But so far, the missing link in his foreign policy has been a strong statement of support for democracy and human rights. An alternative political model to liberal democracy is emerging, one spearheaded by China, Russia and other semi-authoritarian leaders and which places economic development ahead of democratic accountability. The voice of the president of the United States on these issues is perhaps now more crucial than ever. Turning the page on the Bush years, Obama must integrate the cause of political reform with America”s larger security concerns in the Middle East. At Cairo, the president should show the world that on democracy promotion and stability in the Middle East, America can uphold its interests while defending its values.

Michael A. Cohen is a Senior Research Fellow at the New America Foundation. Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. 

Photo: President Barack Obama during a press conference following the G-20 Summit, London, April 2, 2009 (White House photo by Pete Souza).

Obama’s speech in Cairo (PDF)