Barack Obama's Cairo speech -- whatever you might say of his fine rhetoric on Islam and Palestine -- was also, and over time might also be chiefly, a reassertion of the traditional relationship between Egypt and the United States, dropping most pretense of being interested in democracy promotion. Instead, in the democracy segment of his speech, he mostly focused on those things that are popular with Americans, such as religious (rather than civic and political) freedoms, and appeared to warn against Islamist parties being elected when he warned that democracy is not just about elections (a fine claim if he had added that it's also about civic rights, rather than mentioning it in the context of Islamism - "there are some who advocate for democracy only when they are out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others"). But I wouldn't take all this rhetoric too seriously: just as Obama was contemplating making the speech, he was giving the go-ahead on the resumption of the usual military ties between the two countries. After 2005, when the US-Egypt relationship was damaged and Congress (mostly driven by the Gaza tunnels issue but given political cover by Egypt's poor human rights record) wanted to reduce aid. At the same time, the Bush administration was withholding certain weapons deals - a tactic that has been used in the past as a form of pressure (or negotiating tactics), with some results. Obama has now dropped these claims by approving multiple deals, including 24 new F-16 fighter jets :
Egypt's hosting of President Barack Obama's "mutual respect" speech to the Muslim world came at the same time the Obama administration quietly was agreeing to Egypt's longstanding request to purchase some 24 F-16 fighters, according to a report in Joseph Farah's G2 Bulletin. According to informed sources, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates relayed the commitment in his May 5 meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.Another source adds:
The Egyptian request for the F-16 fighter jets and other military equipment had been denied repeatedly by the former Bush administration over Egypt's record on human rights and democracy. The other equipment included the Longbow Apache helicopter, mobile air defense systems and the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) which is a guidance kit that converts existing unguided or "dumb" bombs into "smart" munitions. Lockheed Martin chief executive officer Robert Stevens confirmed that the company had been notified of the Egyptian request. The 24 F-16s would replace some of the other 220 F-16s of varying capability that Egypt has acquired on five separate occasions beginning in 1980 under direct U.S. Foreign Military Sales and through the Netherlands and Turkey. Egypt has been flying the F-16 since 1982, and acquired a total of 220 of those jets since 2002 (42 Block 15 F-16A/B, 40 Block 32 F-16C/D and 138 Block 40 F-16C/D).Now it may be that the deals went ahead as part of wider negotiations we are unaware of, or as a reward for Egypt's role in the Middle East Peace Process post-Gaza War. But it could also just be that the Obama administration is rejecting all previous Bush policies in the region, even the ones that had some good rationale. Egypt is headed into an uncertain presidential succession, with possible regime divisions on who will succeed the ill, 81-year-old Hosni Mubarak and a disgruntled, strained population. Perhaps it wants to secure the continued pro-US leaning of the officer corps. Perhaps it just wants to give US arms companies money and help keeps jobs in the US in a recession. But one thing it's not is a principled foreign policy, and one thing Barack Obama is not is a holier-than-thou president. So let's stop treating him as the second coming. Over the next few days I'll take a look at some of the other outcomes of the speech and some recent changes in the Egypt-US relationship.
Le Monde picks up on different interpretations of Obama's speech among Muslim Brothers. It also cites Egyptian expert on the MB Amr Shoubaki (one of my faves), mentioning he has recently published a book on the MB in French - seehere. Mabrouk ya Amr!
If you read this release from something called the Assyrian International News Agency, where the same person that voices concern for the Copts also condemns "the Islamization of America", you'll worry that some Coptic activists are making the mistake of associating with fringe loonies to the detriment of their worthy cause. But then again Copts in exile have long played political football with the situation of their brethren who remain in Egypt.
André Aciman, from a wealthy Egyptian Jewish family, takes Obama to task for not mentioning the dispossession of Egyptian Jews in the late 1950s and 1960s, when many had their wealth nationalized and were forced into exile. That much is true. Yet strangely Aciman also makes an omission: Israel's false flag terror operations, such as the Lavon Affair, to frighten Arab Jews; the unprovoked 1956 land grab by Israel (and Britain and France) that was the Suez War; or indeed the manner of Israel's creation are not mentioned.
The speech had been viewed 550,000 times by late Saturday on the White House YouTube website, and translations of the speech got 10,000 hits for an Arabic version, 25,000 in Punjabi and 45,000 in other languages, officials said.Only 10,000 in Arabic?
Controversy over Fahmi Howeidy (and a Lebanese and a Syrian) refusal to attend Obama presser that included an Israeli.
Editorial takes Obama to task for radically cutting democracy promotion funding and programs. Let's accept that they are right on the figures (since the WSJ editorial pages are so neocon), but I'd like to check whether that's because more money has been moved elsewhere.
This IPS story gathers a lot of Egyptian reactions to the speech by democracy and human rights activists. Needless to say many were disappointed, from left and right.
Having watched Obama’s speech in Cairo and having now read it carefully several times, I wonder if he is not running for president of the world. . . This speech was crafted to speak directly and candidly to people in many different countries, while casually ignoring their rulers. He was dismissive of elections as true or unique measures of democracy, which had to resonate in a country like Egypt, with a doughy zombie of a leader who wins his elections by more than 90% and who is preparing to turn over his 28-year pharoh-ship to his son.
US/Egypt: Obama Dodged Rights Issue Generalities Failed to Send Tough Message on Mideast Repression (Cairo, June 4, 2009) – President Barack Obama’s speech on June 4, 2009 failed to advance the promotion of human rights in the Muslim world, Human Rights Watch said today. In a much-anticipated address, Obama spoke bluntly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but kept to generalities when it came to the pressing need for human rights and democratic reforms in the region. “If Obama wanted to tackle the issues that cause Muslim ill-will toward the US, he should have taken on the region’s repressive regimes, many of them US-backed, including his hosts,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Egypt and others will interpret his bland generalities as a signal they have nothing to fear from their friends in Washington.” Speaking before 2,500 invited guests at Cairo University, Obama addressed democracy as a major source of tension between the United States and Islam around the world. His choice of Cairo for this much-anticipated speech was controversial because of Egypt’s record of stifling the opposition, holding tainted elections, and imprisoning dissidents. Obama said that all people yearn for “the rule of law and administration of justice,” but did not criticize the state of emergency that has undermined respect for human rights in Egypt, Algeria, and Syria, among other countries. President Hosni Mubarak in 2008 renewed the Emergency Law, in force since 1981, which allows authorities to suppress demonstrations, detain opponents arbitrarily, and try them in special security courts that do not meet international fair trial standards. On freedom of expression, Obama spoke of the importance of the “ability to speak your mind” but missed the opportunity to criticize the imprisonment of dissidents, journalists, and bloggers in Egypt and elsewhere. On torture, Obama spoke only in the context of post 9/11 practices by the United States, noting that the United States has “unequivocally prohibited” its use. But he failed to speak of the practice of torture in the Middle East and of US complicity in the renditions to countries where torture is systemic, including Egypt, or of the need for measures to bring accountability for such practices. Coming four years after then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s pro-democracy speech in Cairo, which some contend helped to widen space for democratic activism in Egypt, Obama’s comments on democracy had been eagerly awaited. In that speech, Rice said that in Egypt “peaceful supporters of democracy – men and women – are not free from violence,” and that “the day must come when the rule of law replaces emergency decrees – and when the independent judiciary replaces arbitrary justice.” In contrast, Obama’s argument that “governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful, and secure,” and his reiteration that “you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion,” will not make the Egyptian government or any others in the region feel particularly uncomfortable. “Obama failed to address the dire state of human rights in the region and the past US practice of ‘rendering’ persons to countries like Egypt for torture,” said Whitson. “His Cairo speech brings us no new beginning in terms of promoting human rights.”HRW's follow-up message 50 minutes later:
Dear all, Apologies, but please do not use the news release headlined “US/Egypt: Obama Dodged Rights Issue,” which was sent in error at 4:15 p.m. EDT. We will send a corrected version shortly.HRW's final release over three hours after that:
Obama Mid-East Speech Supports Rights, Democracy But US Needs Stronger Message for Repressive Regional Allies (Cairo, June 4, 2009) – President Barack Obama’s much-anticipated June 4, 2009, speech to the Muslim world avoided confronting authoritarian governments directly, but sent a welcome message that Washington would not let the prospect of empowering Islamist parties deter it from supporting democracy in the region, Human Rights Watch said today. Speaking before 2,500 invited guests at Cairo University, Obama said the issue of democracy and human rights was a major source of tension between the United States and Islam around the world, in part because of the Bush administration’s use of democratic rhetoric to justify the war in Iraq. He pledged, however, that the United States would continue to support human rights and democratic principles in the region. “For the US to regain credibility, it will have to follow through even when voters in the Middle East elect governments Washington doesn’t like,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “If Obama wants to tackle the issues that cause Muslim ill-will toward the United States, he should take on the region’s repressive regimes, many of them US-backed – including his hosts.” Obama’s choice of Cairo for the speech was controversial because of Egypt’s record of stifling the opposition, holding tainted elections, and imprisoning dissidents. Obama said that all people yearn for “the rule of law and the equal administration of justice,” adding, “Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.” Obama stressed that the US would “respect the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them” and “welcome all elected, peaceful governments – provided they govern with respect for all their people,” an apparent reference to Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. However, Obama missed an important opportunity to criticize the state of emergency that has undermined respect for human rights in Egypt, Algeria, and Syria, among other countries. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in 2008 renewed the Emergency Law, in force since 1981, which allows authorities to suppress demonstrations, detain opponents arbitrarily, and try them in special security courts that do not meet international fair trial standards. On freedom of expression, Obama rightly spoke of the importance of the “ability to speak your mind,” but failed to criticize the imprisonment of dissidents, journalists, and bloggers in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia and elsewhere. Obama spoke about torture in the context of post-9/11 practices by the United States, noting that his administration has “unequivocally prohibited” its use. “Obama told his Middle Eastern audience that the US has ended torture, but it would have been better had he also urged governments of the region, including Egypt’s, to do the same,” Whitson said. Acknowledging the suffering of both Israeli and Palestinian people, Obama pressed both sides to take steps to end their conflict. He said the US did not support “continued Israeli settlements” in the Occupied Territories, and urged Hamas to stop the use of violence. Obama implicitly called on Israel to end its blockade of Gaza, noting “the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel’s security.” But Obama did not mention the upcoming UN Human Rights Council mission, led by Judge Richard Goldstone, to investigate abuses by both sides in the recent conflict in Gaza. Human Rights Watch said Obama should have used this opportunity to push Israel to cooperate with the international investigation. “Obama’s made a start in restoring America’s image in the Middle East, affirming US support for human rights principles,” said Whitson. “He’s laid out general principles, but now he needs to be more specific about what Washington expects from its authoritarian allies – that they free political prisoners, end torture, allow a free press and tolerate genuine political opposition.”It's not that the final release is that bad, although the initial one was better as far as HRW's remit -- human rights -- are concerned. But the initial one had a lot more info about the problematic nature of having Egypt, a serial abuser, as host and also raises the bilateral issue of rendition, an ongoing program Obama did not cancel. Basically the first release was an Egypt-focused one, centered on the relegation of democracy and human rights to a distant concern for the Obama administration. The final release tones down that criticism and adds, rightly, that Obama should have called on Israel to comply with the Goldstone Enquiry and highlighted the most recent massive abuse of human rights in the region, Israel's Operation Cast Lead. Worth noting the initial release had nothing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I wonder what brought about the change of mind. Both releases make valid points, I wish they had made both the points about Egypt and the relegation of human rights promotion in Obama's foreign policy as well as his need to take a stronger stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after Gaza. (Although I do think the point in the final press release about the US sending the signal that will not shirk from empowering Islamists by respecting their democratic elections is wrong -- after all, if this was so Hamas would be recognized as the legitimate government of Palestine.)
On June 4, 2009 a new chapter began in the trilateral relations between the United States, the Arab world and Israel. One day before Israel marks the 42nd anniversary of the Six-Day War, U.S. President Barack Obama declared before the entire world, upon an Arab-Muslim stage, that the time has come to end the era of Israeli occupation in the Palestinian territories. Moreover, Obama announced that he was taking responsibility for doing so. The imbalance in the unequal U.S.-Israel-Arab triangle was replaced Thursday by an Isosceles triangle.
Responses to Obama speech by Israeli right: “The Zionist vision of the rebuilding of the Land of Israel is stronger than any president or government. We outlasted Pharaoh, and we will outlast Obama.”
So let there be no doubt: Islam is a part of America. And I believe that America holds within her the truth that regardless of race, religion, or station in life, all of us share common aspirations - to live in peace and security; to get an education and to work with dignity; to love our families, our communities, and our God. These things we share. This is the hope of all humanity.Since I don't think this part of the speech (its official reason) is either needed or necessary, I would just say that this message is positive, as is the recognition of Islam as part of America rather than this external entity. On America post-9/11:
And finally, just as America can never tolerate violence by extremists, we must never alter our principles. 9/11 was an enormous trauma to our country. The fear and anger that it provoked was understandable, but in some cases, it led us to act contrary to our ideals. We are taking concrete actions to change course. I have unequivocally prohibited the use of torture by the United States, and I have ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed by early next year.I think it's important to stress the shock of 9/11 on Americans. Too many people in the Muslim world have forgotten that to focus on their own grievances. The mention of torture, again, is ironic in a country that widely practices it. On Israel/Palestine:
On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people - Muslims and Christians - have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations - large and small - that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own. . . . Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America's founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It's a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered. Now is the time for Palestinians to focus on what they can build. The Palestinian Authority must develop its capacity to govern, with institutions that serve the needs of its people. Hamas does have support among some Palestinians, but they also have responsibilities. To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, and to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, and recognize Israel's right to exist. At the same time, Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine's. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop. Israel must also live up to its obligations to ensure that Palestinians can live, and work, and develop their society. And just as it devastates Palestinian families, the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel's security; neither does the continuing lack of opportunity in the West Bank. Progress in the daily lives of the Palestinian people must be part of a road to peace, and Israel must take concrete steps to enable such progress. Finally, the Arab States must recognize that the Arab Peace Initiative was an important beginning, but not the end of their responsibilities. The Arab-Israeli conflict should no longer be used to distract the people of Arab nations from other problems. Instead, it must be a cause for action to help the Palestinian people develop the institutions that will sustain their state; to recognize Israel's legitimacy; and to choose progress over a self-defeating focus on the past.Saying that the Palestinians' situation is intolerable is a fantastic move, as well as making it clear that there is a special US-Israel relationship. The emphasis of the US, and the Quartet, in getting all Palestinians to adhere to the Quartet conditions is wrong-headed, though, since there is no similar demand on the Israelis to give up violence. I would have liked to see a more explicit demand to lift the siege of Gaza and allow reconstruction to take place. Great reiteration of the demand that settlement expansion stop, let's hope for follow-through on this in the battle with the Netanyahu government in Israel. The idea that violence is a dead end in nonsensical, Gandhi needed violent nationalists in India just like Nelson Mandela needed the violent part of the ANC to present a credible threat. The question is when to abandon it, and having the option to abandon it. On Iran:
I understand those who protest that some countries have weapons that others do not. No single nation should pick and choose which nations hold nuclear weapons. That is why I strongly reaffirmed America's commitment to seek a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons. And any nation - including Iran - should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That commitment is at the core of the Treaty, and it must be kept for all who fully abide by it. And I am hopeful that all countries in the region can share in this goal.A vague way to sidestep the issue of Israel's nuclear weapons and Arab demands for a single standard across the region. On democracy:
This last point is important because there are some who advocate for democracy only when they are out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others. No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.To me this seemed like a reference to the Muslim Brothers in Egypt or the general fear of Islamists coming in to power in a "one vote, one time" manner. This is not so much the issue in the most countries, since they already have (fraudulently) elected government that maintain power through coercion rather than consent. Since that is the case in Egypt, it highlights the ironies of doing this speech in Cairo. On freedom of religion:
Among some Muslims, there is a disturbing tendency to measure one's own faith by the rejection of another's. The richness of religious diversity must be upheld - whether it is for Maronites in Lebanon or the Copts in Egypt. And fault lines must be closed among Muslims as well, as the divisions between Sunni and Shia have led to tragic violence, particularly in Iraq.The mention of the Copts and Maronites may be a response to US political pressure on this issue, it is a good thing although used carelessly: Copts are the victims of discrimination, Maronites have political representation above their numbers in Lebanon, but fear Hizbullah's hegemony. So I found this a little clumsy and politically driven by the forthcoming Lebanese elections. But touching on this issue is nonetheless important. On prosperity and development:
On science and technology, we will launch a new fund to support technological development in Muslim-majority countries, and to help transfer ideas to the marketplace so they can create jobs. We will open centers of scientific excellence in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, and appoint new Science Envoys to collaborate on programs that develop new sources of energy, create green jobs, digitize records, clean water, and grow new crops. And today I am announcing a new global effort with the Organization of the Islamic Conference to eradicate polio. And we will also expand partnerships with Muslim communities to promote child and maternal health.A concrete initiative here, moving beyond the whole Arab Human Development Report condemnation of backwardness in the Arab world to actually doing something about it. I think this important, if the initiative is well implemented. Above: The Hagg, owner of my local qahwa in Garden City, watching the Obama speech. More pics on Flickr. Concrete new initiatives: White House releases memo on the education and technology initiatives Obama referred to in the speech. So what we're seeing is that the big picture stuff - Iran, Israel, etc. - is still being negotiated, but these modest initiatives are coming.