In his June 4, 2009 speech at Cairo University, President Barack Obama dramatically raised expectations for U.S. policy in the Middle East, among Americans and Muslims both. “Whatever we think of the past,” Obama said, “We must not be prisoners to it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; our progress must be shared.” It was a historic address, as the President threatened to do precisely what many progressives had long hoped for: reorient American foreign policy away from the sometimes tragic mistakes of the past, whether the Iraq war or even the still-resonant 1953 coup in Iran. And it seemed only natural that Egypt, a land of great potential but deep social and political problems, would be Obama’s testing ground.
In Egypt and across the region, Americans reported receiving smiles and salutes, something that has a whiff of fantasy to those of us who lived in the Middle East during the Bush era. A range of politicians and activists from across the region lauded the speech. Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, praised Obama for offering “a new vision of rapprochement,” while Jordanian analyst Fahd al-Khaytan spoke of a “historic change in U.S. political discourse.” Thorbjorn Jagland, the chairman of the Nobel Committee that awarded the Peace Prize to Obama, has cited the president’s Cairo address as a major factor in the committee’s decision.
In the months since, however, the meaning of the address has become clouded by the realities of a region known for its stubborn resistance to change. With Afghanistan, Iran, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict sucking most of Washington’s limited attention, Egypt has faded into the background.
But Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world and still its preeminent cultural and intellectual center, is a bellwether for the region. American policy toward Cairo, its closest Arab ally and, since 1979, its second-largest recipient of foreign aid, has been in need of a facelift for some time. U.S.-Egypt relations have long been governed by an understanding that, in return for supporting American interests in the region, Washington would turn a blind eye to Egypt’s authoritarian practices. This bargain—interests in exchange for ideals— remained firm until the Bush Administration began to realize, in the aftermath of September 11, that the status quo was not as stable as originally thought. Support of Arab autocracies had boomeranged, producing a Middle East consumed by political violence and extremism. In her own Cairo speech, four years before Obama’s, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, “For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the region, here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither.”