A Missed Chance? Obama on Democracy in Egypt

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In his typically cautious fashion, US President Barack Obama gave a speech in Cairo in June that touched on Islamic extremism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nuclear weapons, and human rights, without wading into any policy detail. It was public diplomacy at its finest--just enough specifics to placate the audience, but nothing Obama could be pinned down to. But in one significant regard, the speech confirmed a major shift in US policy from the Bush administration--the minimal focus on democracy promotion. Obama declared his "commitment ... to governments that reflect the will of the people." But he never explicitly criticized the regime of Hosni Mubarak, as George W. Bush had done, and he was quick to add that "America does not presume to know what is best for everyone." No one doubts that Obama's agenda is already full. But does Obama's brief treatment of the democracy question signal a deprioritization within his administration? And what would this mean for the many Egyptians who were hoping for some encouragement of their democratic aspirations?

In a broader sense, much of Obama's foreign policy has been a movement away from Bush's neoconservative idealism--especially prominent in Bush's first term, when he "liberated" Iraq and talked tough to Mubarak--and toward a realist assessment of US aims. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has downplayed the human rights question in her talks with China, while Obama was reluctant to criticize the Iranian election results in June, as he planned to talk directly to whoever won. In Egypt, Obama needs Hosni Mubarak's support to resume Middle East peace talks, and many worry that too much pressure on democracy could upset the relationship. Advocates of democracy-promotion, however, note that much of the Arab world's antipathy towards the United States comes from US support of autocrats like Mubarak, and argue that Obama must not sacrifice long-term transformations for short-term gains.

Both arguments have their flaws. On the one hand, it is not impossible for the administration to pressure the Mubarak regime to democratize while simultaneously collaborating with them on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After all, Bush was fairly aggressive from 2003-05 in pushing Egypt to liberalize, even while the two countries were cooperating on the Palestine issue. Bush shifted large parts of the US$1.7 billion aid package away from economic development and towards democracy promotion, and threatened to withhold more if Mubarak did not embark on real reform. Even with this democratization campaign, though, Mubarak continued to participate in the peace process, agreeing in February 2005 to return an ambassador to Israel at the close of the Second Intifada. Nor is Mubarak by any means the most intransigent actor in the process today. On the contrary: Egypt's visceral opposition to Hamas has led it to take a vocal leadership role in the "accommodationist" camp of Arab states. So it is certainly possible for Obama to push Mubarak on democracy and pull him along on a regional peace initiative.

What advocates for pressuring Mubarak often gloss over, however, is the sheer magnitude of the barriers to democratization in Egypt. …