Led by an octogenarian who has been in power since Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981, Egypt persists as an authoritarian regime lacking any truly democratic institutions, making this speech Obama’s first delivered in a nondemocracy.This latter fact perhaps explains why White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs emphasized that the speech’s scope was “bigger than where the speech was going to be given or who is the leadership of the country,” during the press briefing announcing it.
This attempt at evasion, however, fails to fully address the downside of the choice of venue. There is no way for the president to travel to Egypt without providing implicit support for the Mubarak regime.
Marc Lynch, who voiced similar concerns about the venue, yesterday zeroed in on “the key question for Obama’s trip the region, his speech, and his strategic approach both to Iran and the Israeli-Arab tracks: Will he reinforce or challenge the ‘moderates vs resistance’ frame which he inherited from the Bush administration?”
The Arab leaders he has been meeting, like the Israelis, are perfectly comfortable with that approach, dividing the region between Israel and Arab “moderates” vs Iran and Arab “resistance” groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. That’s the easy path. If followed it is likely to fail badly, destroy the hopes for change which his engagement policy has raised, and leave the region right back where Bush left it. But I think — and hope — that Obama will not fall into that trap.
He has an opportunity over the next few weeks — with the unveiling of his approach to Israel and the Palestinians, the response to the Lebanese and Iranian elections, and his Cairo speech — to break down those tired, dangerous, and unpopular lines of division. And if he chooses to do that, to really challenge the unsustainable status quo, then Riyadh and Cairo are the right place to start.
Underlying all of these concerns, of course, is the disrepute into which the idea of democracy promotion has fallen in the region, in the wake of Bush’s failed freedom agenda — understandable, considering that the central showpiece for that agenda was the Iraq war.
In February, my colleague Brian Katulis published a paper encouraging the Obama administration to reclaim the mantle of democracy promotion, and laid out a strategy for doing that. Read it here (pdf).