Obama Chooses Egypt for His Muslim World Speech

May 14, 2009

The selection of Egypt for President Obama’s long-awaited speech to the Muslim world was not an easy choice, but it is an audacious one. There was no easy option among the various Muslim capitals proposed for the address: a non-Arab capital risked alienating Arabs who view their region as the cradle of Islam, while each Arab capital carried its own risks, from security problems to policy backlash. Egypt may in fact be the riskiest of the available options, because it embodies many of the policy dilemmas the United States faces in the Muslim, and especially the Arab, world. That’s why the choice is so significant.

Egypt today is a crucible for challenges facing many Muslim societies:

  • Egypt is a staunch U.S. partner on major foreign policy issues in the Middle East, but one whose population is overwhelming opposed to American policy and to their government’s alliance with America.
  • Egypt boasts a strong central government and a cohesive national identity—yet the government relies on a mix of repression and cooptation to stay in power, preferring to trust the iron fist (with velvet glove for some) than the test of popular legitimacy.
  • Egyptian society has achieved many milestones in basic development—yet its economic performance has lagged far behind countries, like Brazil, that were once its peers. With one-third of its citizens under the age of majority, and one-fifth living in abject poverty, this underdevelopment breeds resentment and carries risks of instability.
  • Egyptian society is more and more religiously observant, while debates over the role of religion in the public sphere are increasingly contentious, threatening social cohesion (in a country that is 10 percent Christian) and inducing state repression.
  • Egypt faced Islamist terrorism in previous decades, and responded with brutal force. The crackdowns relieved the internal threat, but drove radicals like Ayman al-Zawahiri to other countries, where their impact has multiplied.

For the United States, Egypt also embodies the central dilemmas Washington faces regarding human rights and democracy in the wake of Bush’s Freedom Agenda. Egypt’s president, while formally elected through a competitive process, imprisoned his most recent opponent for three years. His regime continues to arrest and torture journalists, bloggers, and others who challenge government authority. Egypt’s human rights failings don’t stop at its own borders: Mubarak has been a prime sponsor of Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, and his diplomats have been among those subverting the UN Human Rights Council, which Obama now seeks to rehabilitate.

Obama’s intentions on human rights and democracy remain unclear, but short-term exigencies (as well as a bitter Bush legacy) may militate against firm pressure for democratic progress. American policy makers worry that pushing Egypt’s government to improve its human rights practices and open its political process will goad Mubarak into limiting his foreign policy cooperation with Washington at a time when regional challenges loom. American policy makers also fear those who might succeed Mubarak through a democratic election: Islamists resolutely opposed to American policy preferences in the Middle East. These two concerns ultimately doomed Bush’s democracy push in the Middle East; will they prevent Obama from speaking up at all?

All these challenges make Egypt a particularly trying location from which Obama must speak to the Muslim world. But these same facts compel Obama to take the bull by the horns and articulate clear views toward these issues. Concerns over unpopular American policies, stagnant economies, repressive government and fraught mosque-state relations are all so obvious in Egypt that they cannot be ignored without vitiating the credibility of the speech—and rebuilding America’s credibility with Muslim publics is really what this speech is all about.

By choosing Egypt for this address, the Obama administration has swung for the fences. It has set a deadline of one month within which it must decide upon and publicize its basic attitude on two profound questions:

  1. How can America engage with governments of all types abroad, while simultaneously building trust and partnership with their citizens?
  2. How can America pursue its long-term interests in democratic growth alongside its urgent interests in regional stability?

Obama’s June 4 speech in Egypt cannot possibly provide full responses to these deep and important questions—but it must not fail to give some answer. It’s going to be a speech to watch.