Obama’s Words in Cairo, and Egypt’s Democratic Setback

By Mike Burrows, staff editor During his speech on June 4, 2010 in Cairo, President Obama expressed commitment to “governments that reflect the will of the people,” promising that while no system of government should be imposed on one nation by another, American ideals necessitate the support of basic human rights.

Egypt’s elections on November 28 went ahead as feared without independent election monitors. There was, however, plenty of violence (eight were killed, more than in recent shark attacks) and an abundance of money changing hands. So far the US response has been disapproving but muted.  After all, political capital is essential and scarce in the Middle East. With the Obama administration seeking conclusions in Iraq and Afghanistan, pressure against Iran, and effective Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, maintaining good relations with the ruling National Democratic Party and the Mubarak regime is a priority.

Ironically, many who are most upset at these results of the United States’ new hands-off-whenever-possible Middle East tack were also adamantly against the alternative – a continuation of Bush era, democracy-first policy. The United States can’t defend democracy on all fronts, and given Egypt’s sensitivity to even relatively innocuous statements, President Obama may be sensible to pick his battles more carefully with regional support so vital. If new ideas rather than forceful interventions bring about meaningful change, then he may be on the right track.

Unfortunately, American foreign policy may be blocking new ideas from transforming Egyptian politics. The Obama administration decided earlier this year to fund only government-approved NGOs in Egypt. This policy not only puts political opposition at a severe disadvantage, but blocks funds to the most active human rights and civil society organizations.

Despite the failed election, there might be some good news. Brazen fraud, corruption, and violence contribute to popular discontent, and it looks like young people are newly motivated to influence the political culture. High-profile “superstar” candidates will continue to be tough for the ruling elite to marginalize. Sometimes these factors can break apart a corrupt regime, like Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution in 1989. However, another such effort, the Green Revolution in Iran last year, was crushed.

By supporting democracy with words and not force, President Obama is more or less abiding by his June statements in Cairo. His hesitance to seriously engage in Egyptian politics is a long term strategy, gambling that meaningful regional peace can come despite temporary democratic disruptions. The outcome won’t come soon or be obvious. Modifying the policy caveat keeping US money from active human rights and civil society organizations would help his reputation elsewhere, but would go against the strategy by jeopardizing Egypt’s support. Therefore, policy change is unlikely.

In the meantime, foreign policy decisions don’t mean that other organizations and individuals can’t reach out to agents of change. If policy prevents our government from funding civil society and human rights in Egypt, then international organizations and grassroots NGOs should fill the void. Instead of waiting to see what happens to Egyptian democracy, we should help human rights and civil society groups that draw attention to infringements on democracy.

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