What Obama must say (and do) in Egypt

Nader Hashemi
2 June 2009

President Barack Obama will deliver a long-awaited speech on relations between the United States and the Muslim world in Egypt on 4 June 2009.  From the outset, the venue has been subject to speculation and debate. Muslim pro-democracy activists were hoping that Obama would deliver his talk in Jakarta instead of Cairo, partly in support of recent gains for democracy in the world's largest Muslim nation but also as a rebuke to authoritarian regimes which would (it was felt) register a public-relations victory by hosting the new American president. Now that the site of the speech has been decided, there are three things that Obama must do in order to persuade a deeply sceptical Muslim audience. Nader Hashemi is an assistant professor of Middle East and Islamic Politics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He is the author of Islam, Secularism and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies (Oxford University Press, 2009)

First, Obama must during his trip to Egypt hold a townhall-style meeting with everyday Egyptian citizens. Ideally, this meeting should take place not at the American University of Cairo (an elite institution where the rich and famous send their kids) but at Cairo University or perhaps at a local mosque, where attendees are more representative of the Egyptian mainstream. Critically, guarantees must be given that the exchange will be open and uncensored and that those who might ask difficult questions will not be persecuted by the security forces when cameras are turned off. 

The symbolic value of such an event cannot be overstated. The sight of an American president, in open and uncensored dialogue with ordinary Muslims, will go a long way towards demonstrating respect for the Islamic world.  A major grievance that Muslims have is that senior US officials meet only with the ruling elites, and rarely with representatives of more popular forces.  If President Obama is genuinely interested in bridging the chasm between the US and Muslim societies then he must meet and speak directly with the Muslim mainstream, not solely with the dictators who rule over them.

Second, Obama must in his speech address the central identity issue in the Arab-Islamic world today: the question of Palestine. No topic has generated more resentment and more separated the United States from Muslims over the past sixty years than this issue. It is vital that Obama acknowledge in unambiguous terms that the Palestinian people have the same human and national rights as Israelis, including the right to live in peace and security.

Muslims well remember Obama's statement in the Israeli town of Sderot in July 2008: that is, if his daughters were subject to daily rocket-fire he would do everything in his power to stop it. This expression of sympathy for Israeli policy on Gaza begged a question - if the president's daughters were living permanently as refugees in one of the most densely populated areas of the globe, and subject to an ongoing siege, would Obama also do everything in his power to alleviate their suffering?

In this light, the prospects of Obama's initiative to reach out to the Muslim world depends on his ability to speak in moral terms about the plight of the Palestinians and to clarify his plans to bring this conflict to a just conclusion. Anything less will be a massive setback.

Words and deeds

Third, Obama must be prepared to offend - albeit indirectly - his Egyptian hosts. There is a pungency in the leader of the "free world" delivering a major speech to Muslims in one of the least free parts of the world. Hosni Mubarak is one of the most despised as well as one of the longest-standing dictators in the Arab world - a status owed to a mix of his close alliance with the United States, his security forces' internal repression and his collusion with Israel in maintaining the siege of Gaza.

The contradictions between Barack Obama's many speeches that are rooted in the ideals of freedom and democracy, and the reality of US policy in the region, were best expressed by Egyptian author Alaa Al Aswany when he observed: "Our admiration for Mr. Obama is grounded in what he represents: fairness. He is the product of a just, democratic system that respects equal opportunity for education and work. This system allowed a black man, after centuries of racial discrimination, to become president. This fairness is precisely what we are missing in Egypt" (see "Why the Muslim World Can't Hear Obama", New York Times, 7 February 2009).

In his speech Obama cannot avoid the question of democracy and human rights, but he must also address the linkage between US policy and the persistence of authoritarian regimes. If he speaks honestly on this topic, his words will resonate with Muslims and face up to another core grievance that alienates the Islamic world from the west.

In this context it is imperative that Obama avoid another "Condoleezza Rice moment." This refers to a widely reported speech made in Cairo in June 2005 by the then US secretary of state which called for free elections and a rollback of authoritarianism. She criticised previous US policy of supporting "stability at the price of liberty", and strongly hinted that this was about to change. It never did.

What Arabs and Muslims are looking for is a genuine, not a cosmetic change in US policy: one that will tie US economic and diplomatic support to meaningful steps in democratisation. They have heard nice sounding speeches before; what they will be looking for on 4 June 2009 is serious words followed by real deeds.

openDemocracy authors write on the Arab and Islamic world:

Carsten Wieland, "The Syria-Israel talks: old themes, new setting" (27 May 2008)

John C Hulsman, "Memo to Obama: the middle east needs you" (11 November 2008)

Zaid Al-Ali, "What Obama means for Iraq" (13 November 2008)

Godfrey Hodgson, "Change?" (2 December 2008)

Avi Shlaim, "Israel and Gaza: rhetoric and reality" (7 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the Israel-United States connection" (7 January 2009)

Tarek Osman, "Egypt's dilemma: Gaza and beyond" (12 January 2009)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "The failure of force: an alternative option" (16 January 2009)

openDemocracy, "Barack Obama: hope, fear... advice" (20 January 2009)

Pervez Hoodbhoy, "Barack Obama's triple test" (21 January 2009)

Fred Halliday, "The greater middle east: Obama's six problems" (21 January 2009)

Khaled Hroub, "The ‘Arab system' after Gaza" (27 January 2009)

Carsten Wieland, "The Gaza war and the Syria-Israel front" (5 February 2009)

Tarek Osman, "The Islamic world, the United States, democracy" (15 May 2009)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Lebanon: chronicles of an attempted suicide" (20 May 2009)

Robert G Rabil, "Barack Obama's middle east: pragmatism and hope" (1 June 2009)

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