The View from Cairo
The View from Cairo
Saturday, November 8,2008 15:46
By Samer Shehata

I’ve been in Cairo for the last week attending a conference and conducting research. I witnessed the US elections from the Egyptian capital. People here, like others around the world, are happy with the election outcome. Some are even delighted. What is remarkable is that vastly different political groups wanted Senator Barak Obama to win: from senior regime officials to members of the Muslim Brotherhood and of course, ordinary Egyptians. I spoke with government officials, members of the banned Islamist opposition group and ordinary Egyptians before November 4, on election day and after the outcome became certain. And I observed the reaction of ordinary Cairenes to the events in the United States.

People here are amazed that 130 million Americans voted on November 4—despite the long lines they saw on television—and impressed that for the first time in US history an African-American was elected president. Egyptians—like many others—have renewed faith in America and all that is possible in the United States. And like others around the globe, they are impressed with president-elect Obama: with his background and personal story, his politics and eloquence and yes, his name. People are hopeful—although realistic—about the possibility of a new and significantly improved relationship with the United States.

How is all of this related to US policy in the Middle East and what the next administration should not do in the region? As Rachel Bronson astutely observed in her November 4 post (“Don’t Linger”), now is not the time to linger or delay engaging the Middle East—with both the regimes and peoples of the region—in a serious and intelligent way. The US cannot afford to squander this historic moment of opportunity.

Governments in the region are looking forward to engaging with a new US administration. For the last two years, in fact, they have been waiting for the Bush administration to come to an end, literally counting the days. Government officials are looking forward to sitting down with American policy makers and exchanging views and ideas; speaking and being listened to—unlike how many here have characterized the Bush administration’s approach to the region: “we know what’s right, so don’t say anything and just listen to us”—an approach characterized by arrogance and ideology.

The people of the Arab world are also hoping for a more respectful and intelligent engagement with the US: an end to unnecessary wars, bellicose language and Islamophobia, a reduction in the US military presence in the region, genuine support for democratic principles and yes, a more even-handed approach toward the Arab-Israeli conflict.

As a result, the new administration faces a historic opportunity. It cannot afford to squander the opportunity by dealing only with those issues that seem most pressing (i.e., Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan). The next administration should immediately begin to seriously assess and formulate policy options regarding two other critical issues: the Arab-Israeli conflict and the question of “democratization” and US support for democracy.

There will be many who articulate seemingly compelling reasons why the new US administration should not immediately devote some of its attention and resources to these issues: the more pressing questions of the global financial crisis, the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, the need to withdraw responsibly from Iraq, the Iranian nuclear question—not to mention the fact that it is not politically shrewd for a first-term president to invest time and risk political capital dealing with the seemingly intractable issue of Arab-Israeli peace or the thorny question of US support for democracy.

This would be a tremendous mistake (similar to the mistake made by the Bush administration when it put off dealing with these issues because of past failures). The next administration must take advantage of the historic opportunity—of the renewed goodwill toward the United States and the hope that many in this region have toward an Obama presidency. Hope and goodwill could soon dissipate if they are not acted upon. And just as importantly, if the Arab-Israeli conflict and the question of democratization are not addressed immediately they will not simply remain, but will worsen and become more difficult for the new administration and future administrations—not to mention for US national security interests and the people of the region.

The next administration, therefore, must immediately begin to assess and creatively engage with the Arab-Israeli conflict—and it cannot be held hostage by the failed personalities and politics of the region’s 20th century “leaders.” The new administration must formulate new ideas and create new possibilities for resolving this conflict once and for all. The benefits for the US would be tremendous (and would not be confined to the region).

Similarly, the next administration must not put off the question of democracy promotion or prioritize the Arab-Israeli conflict over the issue of US support for democracy. Both issues are mutually reinforcing and must be pursued simultaneously.

Aaron Miller, in a previous post, writes that US policy in the region should be guided by the “diplomatic equivalent of the Hippocratic oath. Above all do no harm but beyond that avoid failure.” This is perfectly correct—but continued US support for Arab authoritarian regimes which relentlessly oppress their peoples does significant harm to US interests and standing in the region (not to mention ordinary people in the region). Formulating new, intelligent effective yet cautious American policies to support democracy in the region will not be easy. The difficulty will be working out a range of policy options that intelligently and effectively support the principles of democracy (e.g., rule of law, accountability, transparency, participation and hopefully good governance) which are realistic and workable—and reflect American principles. This should be the immediate task of the next administration.