Obama Told to Support Mideast Democracy

Obama Told to Support Mideast Democracy

WASHINGTON — As US President Barack Obama readies to fly to Egypt for a long-awaited speech to the Arab and Muslim world, human rights activists, experts and politicians are asking him to remain faithful to promoting rights and democracy in the region.

“We believe that it would be a terrible mistake if the new administration, in its attempt to distance itself from the failed policies of the Bush administration, would go back to the previously tried and failed policies of supporting oppressive regimes and dictators,” Radwan Masmoudi, President of the Center for the Study of Islam & Democracy (CSID), told IslamOnline.net.

In an open letter, more than 1,350 human rights activists, experts and politicians are urging Obama to make the case for democracy and human rights during his upcoming speech, to be delivered from Cairo on June 4.

“In order to rebuild relations of mutual respect, it is critical that the US be on the right side of history regarding the human, civil, and political rights of the peoples of the Middle East.”

The signatories, including prominent American scholar John Esposito, Egyptian human rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim and Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, criticized support for authoritarian regimes.

“US support for Arab autocrats was supposed to serve US national interests and regional stability. In reality, it produced a region increasingly tormented by rampant corruption, extremism, and instability.”

Reform became one of the main themes in the Arab world and the Middle East after the US launched its so-called Broader Middle East and North Africa initiative at a G8 summit in 2004.

But as its troops continued to be bogged down in the Iraq quagmire and needed the help of its regional allies, Washington stopped pressing the issues of democracy and human rights.

“We wanted to demonstrate that there is wide-ranging support in both the Washington DC policy community as well as the Muslim world for a more pro-active US engagement in support of substantive political reform,” Shadi Hamid, Director of Research, Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), told IOL.

Democracy, Islamists

“We wanted to emphasize that moderate Islamist parties must be allowed and encouraged to participate in the political process,” Masmoudi said.

Masmoudi, the CSID chairman and the initiator of the letter, said the aim is to encourage the Obama administration to press hard for promoting democracy and human rights in the volatile region.

“The peoples of the region, especially the youth who represent a majority of the population, want to have a voice in determining their own future and in electing their rulers and holding them accountable,” he told IOL.

“We also wanted to emphasize in the letter that moderate Islamist parties must be allowed and encouraged to participate in the political process in their countries, and that real democracy can never be developed or sustained by excluding the largest and most popular political or religious movements in the region.”

Masmoudi did not name specific Islamists movements and parties.

Many Islamists have been elected to power in Arab and Muslim countries in recent years, including Hamas in the Palestinian territories, Hizbullah in Lebanon and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

The Bush administration shunned talks and relations with elected Islamists.

“If political and peaceful avenues for participation and involvement in public affairs are blocked, this will automatically lead to rising violence and extremism both against those regimes and against the US which is seen as supporting them,” warns Masmoudi.

Neil Hicks, the Director of International Programs at Human Rights First, says people in the region will be closely watching the events of the next few weeks when Obama meet many leaders from the region.

“We believe that the US government should always be actively engaged in human rights promotion around the world,” he told IOL.

“We think that it is very important that President Obama should take a consistent stand in favor of human rights and democracy in his meetings with all of the leaders.”

Better Image

Hicks believes that “the reputation of the US in the Muslim world will improve” with such efforts.

The signatories believe this is an important and essential step to improving relations and mutual understanding between the US and the peoples of the Arab and Muslim worlds.

“The purpose of the letter to President Obama is to express the views and concerns of many people, scholars, experts, and political and religious leaders from the US and around the world about what the Obama administration needs to do in order to improve relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds,” Masmoudi told IOL.

America”s image across the world, but particularly among Arabs and Muslims, was severely battered during the eight-year presidency of Obama”s predecessor George Bush.

Bush”s so-called war on terror, a series of detainees” abuse scandals in Afghanistan, Iraq and the notorious Guantanamo detention center also fanned anti-Americanism across the globe, especially in Muslim countries.

“If people in the region come to believe that the US government is interested in promoting greater freedom and democracy for them, then the reputation of the US in the Muslim world will improve,” believes Hicks, the director of International Programs at Human Rights First


The Source

Transcript: Obama’s speech in Cairo (PDF).