Obama Fails to Prioritize Human Rights on Middle East Trip

President Barack Obama's speech
in Cairo to the Muslim world marked a welcome departure from the Bush
administration's confrontational approach. Yet many Arabs and Muslims
have expressed frustration that he failed to use this opportunity to
call on the autocratic Saudi and Egyptian leaders with whom he had
visited on his Middle Eastern trip to end their repression and open up
their corrupt and tightly controlled political systems.

Imagine the positive reaction Obama would have received throughout
the Arab and Islamic world if, instead of simply expressing eloquent
but vague words in support of freedom and democracy, he had said
something like this:

"Let's fight to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East,
the Saudis and the Egyptians, stop oppressing their own people, and
suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality, and
mismanaging their economies so that their youth grow up without
education, without prospects, without hope, the ready recruits of
terrorist cells."

Could he have said such a thing?

Yes. In fact, those were his exact words when, as an Illinois state senator, he gave a speech at a major anti-war rally in Chicago on October 2, 2002.

Coddling Tyrants

Egypt is the second-largest recipient of U.S. military aid, while
Saudi Arabia is the number-one buyer of U.S. arms. Obama would have
enormous leverage, should he choose to wield it, in pressing these two
regimes to end oppression of their own people, suppression of dissent,
toleration of corruption and inequality, and mismanagement of their
economies. Yet he was apparently unwilling to take advantage of his
highly publicized visits with the leaders of these two countries to
break with his predecessors' coddling of these tyrannical regimes.

To his credit, while in Egypt Obama did engage in a few symbolic
efforts to demonstrate a concern for human rights. He didn't praise his
Egyptian host, the dictatorial president Hosni Mubarak, from the
podium, as is generally customary on such occasions. Nor did he
physically embrace Mubarak or Saudi King Abdullah or otherwise offer
visual displays of affection, as is typical during such visits to
leaders in that region. The Obama administration invited some leading
critics of the regime, including both secular liberals and moderate
Islamists, to witness his University of Cairo speech. However, Kefaya,
Egypt's leading grassroots pro-democracy group, boycotted the speech.
It demanded that Obama show his commitment to democracy in deeds, not

Since his address was directed to the Muslim world as a whole, and
not just to Egypt, it may not have been appropriate in that particular
speech to specify particular human rights abuses in that country or
explicitly call on Mubarak to release political prisoners or allow for
free elections. However, it appears that there was no clear effort by
Obama, at any point during his Middle East trip, to pressure the
Egyptian dictator or his Saudi counterpart to end the repression in
their countries.

Despite taking a conciliatory role in the Arab-Israeli conflict in
recent years, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah reigns over a brutal and
misogynist theocracy. The royal family, with the consultation of
reactionary Wahhabi religious scholars, rules by decree. There's no
constitution and no elections (save for one male-only poll for some
powerless local advisory councils in 2005.) No public non-Islamic
religious observance is allowed. Political prisoners are routinely
tortured and the execution rate (through beheading) is the
second-highest in the world. The country is routinely ranked as one of
the most repressive on the planet. During his visit to the kingdom last
week, however, Obama refused to utter a word of public criticism about
the family dictatorship, but did praise the king for "his wisdom and
his graciousness."

Ignoring Egyptian Repression

As with Saudi Arabia, the repressive nature of Egypt's Mubarak
dictatorship has been well-documented by Amnesty International, Human
Rights Watch, Freedom House, and other groups. This is a country where
a simple gathering of five or more people without a permit is illegal.
Peaceful pro-democracy protesters are routinely beaten and jailed.
Martial law has been in effect for more than 28 years. Independent
observers are banned from monitoring the country's routinely rigged
elections, from which the largest opposition party is banned from
participating and other opposition parties are severely restricted in
producing publications and other activities.

It's well documented that the Egyptian government engages in a
pattern of gross and systematic human rights abuses against perceived
opponents of the regime, including massive detentions without due
process, torture on an administrative basis, and extra-judicial
killings. Targets of government repression have included not just
radical Islamists, but leftists, liberal democrats, feminists, gay men,
independent-minded scholars, students, trade unionists, Coptic
Christians, and human rights activists.

It's therefore quite disappointing that, even though the human
rights situation in Egypt has actually worsened since his 2002 speech
in which he advocated fighting to end repression in that country, Obama
now refuses to even acknowledge that country's authoritarianism. In an
with the BBC just prior to his departure to the Middle East, Justin
Webb asked him directly, "Do you regard President Mubarak as an
authoritarian ruler?"

Obama's reply was "No," insisting that "I tend not to use labels for
folks." Obama also refused to acknowledge Mubarak's authoritarianism on
the grounds that "I haven't met him," as if the question was in regard
to the Egyptian dictator's personality rather than his well-documented
intolerance of dissent.

In further justifying his refusal to acknowledge the authoritarian
nature of the Egyptian government, Obama referred to Mubarak -- whom he
dismissed as a "so-called" ally back in 2002 -- as "a stalwart ally, in
many respects, to the United States." He praised Egypt's despotic
president for having "sustained peace with Israel, which is a very
difficult thing to do in that region," though -- given that no Arab
government has waged war with Israel for over 35 years -- this is hardly
so unique an accomplishment as to justify shying away from legitimate
criticism of the Egyptian leader's dictatorial rule.

Obama went on to insist that "I think he has been a force for
stability. And good in the region." Such an assessment is in marked
contrast to his remarks from less than seven years ago, where he
publicly acknowledged that Mubarak's corrupt and autocratic rule was
creating conditions where Egyptian youth "grow up without education,
without prospects, without hope, the ready recruits of terrorist
cells." Since coming to Washington, Obama has surely read the
intelligence reports that note many young Egyptians have been
radicalized in reaction to Mubarak's corrupt and autocratic rule, and
some have gone on to play key roles in al-Qaeda and other terrorist
groups that have dangerously destabilized the region.

When the BBC's Webb asked Obama how he planned to address the issue
of the "thousands of political prisoners in Egypt," he answered only in
terms of the United States being a better role model, such as closing
the prison at Guatanamo Bay, and the importance of the United States
not trying to impose its human rights values on other countries. While
these are certainly valid points, they offer little hope for the
thousands of regime opponents now languishing in Egyptian prisons.
Obama said nothing about the possibility of linking even part of the
more than $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid to the Mubarak regime on
providing freedom for these prisoners of conscience.

The most negative assessment Obama could muster for Mubarak's
dictatorial regime in the interview was, "Obviously, there have been
criticisms of the manner in which politics operates in Egypt." Given
that there have also been criticisms of the manner in which politics is
conducted in every country of the world, including the United States,
this can hardly account for a public display of disapproval. Even the
Washington-based Freedom House ranks Egypt in the bottom quintile of
the world's countries in terms of political rights and civil liberties.
Webb's question was not about whether there have been criticisms of the
manner in which politics operates in Egypt. The question was whether
Mubarak was an authoritarian leader. Even if Obama did not feel
comfortable labeling the Egyptian president himself as an
authoritarian, he should have at least acknowledged that Mubarak leads
an authoritarian government.

The Return of Realpolitik

In his recent speech, Obama claimed to have "an unyielding belief
that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your
mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of
law and the equal administration of justice; government that is
transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as
you choose." Emphasizing that such concepts are not just American ideas
but basic universal human rights, he pledged that the United States
"will support them everywhere."

Yet few on the proverbial Arab Main Street are going to believe the
United States actually supports human rights until such noble rhetoric
is matched by action, specifically an end to the arming and funding of
repressive governments in the Middle East. As Shirin Sadeghi said,
"Obama's inevitable message to the Muslim world" is that "the United
States will look the other way at your governments' repressive policies
because a working relationship with them is more important than a
consideration of the peoples' rights."

Similarly, while Israel is an exemplary democracy for its Jewish
citizens, that country's U.S.-supplied armed forces have engaged in
massive violations of international humanitarian law against Arab and
Muslim peoples, with bipartisan support from Washington.

It appears, then, that in rejecting the dangerous neoconservative
ideology of his predecessor, Obama is largely falling back onto the realpolitik
of previous administrations by continuing to support repressive regimes
through unconditional arms transfers and other security assistance.
Obama's understandable skepticism of externally mandated, top-down
approaches to democratization through "regime change" is no excuse for
arming these regimes, which then use these instruments of repression to
subjugate popular indigenous bottom-up struggles for democratization
(and then, in turn, justify the large-scale unconditional support for
Israel because it's "the sole democracy in the Middle East").

Because this is the aspect of U.S. foreign policy most Arabs and
Muslims experience firsthand, support for these corrupt and despotic
regimes is arguably the single biggest motivation for the young
disenfranchised men that join the ranks of radical Islamists against
the United States, even more so than U.S. support for Israel or the
U.S. invasion of Iraq. Continued support for the dictatorial regimes in
Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other countries, therefore, ultimately places
Americans at risk.

Largely as a result of the longstanding bipartisan U.S. effort to
prop up the Mubarak dictatorship, the percentage of Egyptians who look
favorably upon the United States in recent years has plunged into the
single digits, which is a significantly lower percentage than even
Iranians. With more than 80 million people, Egypt is by far the world's
largest Arab country and remains the center of Arab and Islamic
culture, media, and scholarship. It's therefore not a country whose
people the Obama administration should risk alienating. Like the series
of administrations from Eisenhower to Carter, which insisted on
supporting the despotic Shah of Iran, Obama's insistence on continuing
to arm and support the Mubarak regime could be sowing the seeds of yet
another disastrous anti-American reaction.

Another problem with Obama's apparent willingness to continue
America's strategic and economic support for these dictatorships is
that it provides the neocons and other right-wing critics an
opportunity to appear to seize the moral high ground. Despite the fact
that U.S. military and economic support for Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and
other repressive regimes in the greater Middle East actually increased
under the Bush administration, Obama's failure to speak out more
forcefully for greater freedom and democracy in the region is now
becoming a Republican line of attack. Just because Bush and his
supporters disingenuously used "democracy promotion" as a
rationalization for its invasion of Iraq and other reckless policies,
however, it doesn't therefore follow that supporting democracy is a bad

Almost none of the dozens of successful transitions to democracy in
recent decades have come from foreign intervention. The vast majority
have come from democratic civil society organizations engaging in
strategic nonviolent action from within. While the United States cannot
instigate such "people power" movements, at least we can stop providing
autocratic regimes with the means to suppress them. And there's no
better place to start than the Middle East.

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