Obama’s Challenge in Cairo

William A. Galston
Bill Galston
William A. Galston Ezra K. Zilkha Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

May 28, 2009

As President Obama prepares for his historic speech in Cairo next week, he faces a dual challenge–not only to redefine the troubled relations between the United States and the Muslim world, but also to clarify the place of democracy and human rights in his administration’s foreign policy. The former would have been the centerpiece of his first speech in an Islamic nation no matter where he had chosen to deliver it. But it was the selection of Egypt as his venue that made the latter unavoidable.

After all, it was in Egypt, in June of 2005, that then-Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice delivered a ringing address in support of democracy-building through the Middle East, triggering a wave of democratic activism in Egypt and other Muslim countries. And after Islamist gains in the region–most notably in the 2006 Palestinian elections–she returned to Egypt, in 2007, to give another speech widely interpreted as signaling a retreat from the visionary democratic aspirations of George W. Bush’s second inaugural. Since then, the Egyptian government has intensified its repression of opposition forces–and neither the Bush administration nor (apparently) the Obama administration has raised much of a fuss.

The early evidence suggests that President Obama has chosen–or feels compelled–to reduce the emphasis on democracy promotion and to put economic and security concerns first. Given the gravity and urgency of the problems in these areas, the administration’s stance is understandable, perhaps even inevitable. But Secretary of State Clinton’s blunt statements to that effect have evoked negative reactions in many quarters. A March 10 Washington Post editorial accused her of undercutting her own department’s criticisms of Egypt’s repressive policies, and Egyptian human rights groups accused her of giving the Mubarak regime a “green light” to intensify them. The State Department immediately shot back with an unusually strong response, denying that Clinton had downplayed these issues and characterizing her policy as a change of means, not ends. “We are going to continue to push,” said a high-ranking spokesman, “but … we want to be more effective than previous administrations have been. … You’ve got to try to come up with ways that you can use–the media or other elements of society–to [exert] influence in a positive direction.”

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