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The Center for the Study of Islam Democracy

Obama administration’s Middle East Strategy : The Cairo Conundrum

The Cairo Conundrum
In his June 4, 2009 speech at Cairo University, President Barack Obama dramatically raised expectations for U.S. policy in the Middle East, among Americans and Muslims both. “Whatever we think of the past,” Obama said, “We must not be prisoners to it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; our progress must be shared.” It was a historic address, as the President threatened to do precisely what many progressives had long hoped for: reorient American foreign policy away from the sometimes tragic mistakes of the past, whether the Iraq war or even the still-resonant 1953 coup in Iran.
Read MoreIn Egypt and across the region, Americans reported receiving smiles and salutes, something that has a whiff of fantasy to those of us who lived in the Middle East during the Bush era. A range of politicians and activists from across the region lauded the speech. Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, praised Obama for offering “a new vision of rapprochement,” while Jordanian analyst Fahd al-Khaytan spoke of a “historic change in U.S. political discourse.” Thorbjorn Jagland, the chairman of the Nobel Committee that awarded the Peace Prize to Obama, has cited the President’s Cairo address as a major factor in the committee’s decision.

In the months since, however, the meaning of the address has become clouded by the realities of a region known for its stubborn resistance to change. With Afghanistan, Iran, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict sucking most of Washington’s limited attention, Egypt has faded into the background.

Just as it did under the previous administration, America’s relationship with Egypt both captures and magnifies the myriad contradictions of U.S. policy in the Middle East. It brings to a head the inescapable tensions that have long undermined its credibility in the region, tensions between ideals and interests, between America’s desire for democracy and its need for stability. Bringing coherence to that relationship is critical to promoting democracy to the Middle East.

In an effort to disassociate themselves from the Iraq war and the neoconservatism from which it sprung, progressives have also distanced themselves from democracy promotion in the Middle East. This has extended to the highest rungs of Democratic policymaking and most clearly been on display in Obama’s evolving policies toward Egypt. As early as March, the Egyptian Ambassador Sameh Shukri happily noted that relations with the United States were improving because Washington was dropping its demands “for human rights, democracy, and religious and general freedoms.” Meanwhile, in her first trip to Cairo the same month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Egyptians that “conditionality is not our policy.”

Under the Obama Administration’s direction, the 2009 omnibus appropriations act included specific language limiting the amount of economic assistance that could be used for democracy and governance, the first time that such language has ever been used in legislation. Jordan is the only other Arab country to suffer significant cuts in democracy assistance. Overall funding was slashed by 23 percent, while funding for civil society fell 44 percent and 36 percent for good governance programs. On the other hand, non-democracy-related assistance to Jordan, through the Millennium Challenge Corporation – along with the Middle East Partnership Initiative, one of two Bush-era funding initiatives that the Obama Administration, to its credit, continues to support – is set to increase dramatically. Only democratic or democratizing countries are supposed to be eligible; Jordan, however, has grown increasingly authoritarian in recent years, and its most recent parliamentary elections, held in November 2007, were its least free and fair since the resumption of parliamentary life in 1989.

Since 2006, the regime has worked to erase the Brotherhood from the political map, in what many consider the worst period of anti-Islamist repression since the so-called mihna, or inquisition, of the 1950s and 60s. Not content to rely solely on brute force, the Mubarak government in what Amnesty International called “the greatest erosion of human rights in 26 years” passed 34 constitutional amendments that nullify political freedoms and grant the regime even more extensive powers to detain opponents. An amended Article 5, for example, bans any “political activity” on the basis of religion, allowing the government to arrest any Islamist at any time without due cause. In effect, the regime’s right to repress has been enshrined in the constitution.

Stability, legitimacy, and the question of democracy in Egypt are all intertwined. The less legitimate the current regime and its recent actions are perceived to be, the less likely the impending transition will be stable or even peaceful. This is why Egypt’s internal affairs – in particular the regime’s disregard for even the pretense of building any post-Mubarak consensus – are so important.

Anti-American anger, and the violence and terror that can result, is fueled by long-standing grievances; as long as millions of Arabs and Muslims hold them, whether those grievances are legitimate is almost beside the point. For Americans, the CIA-sponsored coup that toppled a democratically elected leader in Iran in 1953 stands as an isolated incident. Yet for many who live in the region, the coup is one part of a broader narrative: that the United States has opposed, and at times actively undermined, nascent democratic movements in the Middle East. Too many Arabs and Muslims hold the inverse of America’s opinion of itself: It is not a force for good, or even a burdened, yet flawed, protector of the international system, but rather an actor that has worked, in remarkably consistent fashion, to suppress and subjugate the people of the region.

The second policy pillar, under the rubric of Islamist engagement, would serve effectively to resolve America’s long-standing “Islamist dilemma,” reflected in the contradictory impulses of wanting democratic elections but fearing Islamist victories at the polls. Obama should begin with a set of rhetorical clarifications, stating that the United States is not opposed to dealing with Islamist groups, as long as they fulfill the conditions of renouncing violence and committing to the rules of the democratic game. The Administration has already signaled its interest in moving in this direction. Administration officials reportedly pressured the Egyptian government to invite members of the Muslim Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc to the Cairo speech. The public-diplomacy benefit was limited, however; the Administration could not actually publicize that it had wanted the Brotherhood to attend, so very few people are aware that it did.

Just as neoconservatives got a lot wrong, progressives, in reaction, have learned some of the wrong lessons for the wrong reasons. Strong democracy rhetoric is not necessarily counterproductive, and there is little reason to think the Middle East is immune to democratic interventions. Pragmatism, the new and rather hollow progressive catch-all term, is not a substitute for well-considered policy. Nor should it obscure deeply held principles and ideals, principles that, sadly, we have so often failed to uphold in the Middle East.In Egypt, an otherwise promising polity threatens to come apart. Egyptians, along with Arabs and Muslims throughout the region, have demonstrated their desire for substantive political change. It is time we did the same.

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