When President Obama called for a "new beginning" in U.S. relations with the Muslim world a year ago, he picked Cairo as the setting for his speech. It was a provocative choice, the capital of a close ally of the United States but also of the three-decades-old autocracy of Hosni Mubarak.
When Obama declared his commitment to "governments that reflect the will of the people" and said that leaders "must maintain your power through consent, not coercion," Egyptians thought they heard a not-so-subtle reference to their aging leader. One enthusiastic Egyptian shouted, "Barack Obama, we love you!" -- the only such interjection during the address.
A year later, Egyptians are scratching their heads about why Obama came to Cairo. In meetings in Cairo this week, Egyptian civil society and political activists across the spectrum voiced their disappointment, asking, "I know they're busy, but can't the Obama administration spare any time at all for what is going on inside Egypt?" and saying resignedly of the president, "He seems like a nice guy, but I guess he's just not going to do anything for us."
The disappointment is understandable. As Egypt heads into controversial parliamentary elections in fall 2010 and a presidential election in 2011, the Obama administration has been tone-deaf, intent on continuing to improve relations with the increasingly brittle and unpopular Mubarak regime. It has cut democracy assistance spending in Egypt by half, agreed to forbid assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development to groups that lack the government's stamp of approval, and is discussing a future "endowment" that would commit the United States to years of assistance with diminished congressional oversight. When administration officials have privately raised questions about democracy or human rights with the Egyptian government, their carefully calibrated "quiet diplomacy" has been dismissed or ignored. Obama himself politely asked Mubarak during an August 2009 Oval Office meeting to fulfill his 2005 pledge to lift the state of emergency under which Egyptians have been repressed since 1981. Mubarak brushed him off. Last month, Mubarak renewed the state of emergency for another two years, conveniently the period during which parliamentary and presidential elections will occur. The Obama administration called it "regrettable."
Meanwhile, Mubarak is in ill health and may not even make it to the next presidential election. His regime has systematically excluded or discredited new leaders who enjoy any public support, leaving the field of potential successors depressingly impoverished. One would think that under the circumstances both Egyptians and the U.S. government would be working to put in place an open political process so that any new leader could win the support of the people and thus ensure order in this important nation. But the Egyptian government is paralyzed by the aging Mubarak's refusal to look beyond his own rule. And the Obama administration, in pursuit of an illusory stability, stands mute and passive as the predictable train wreck draws nearer.
This administration prides itself on its progressive approach to this post-Cold War world, but it is repeating the mistake that Cold War-era administrations made when they supported right-wing dictatorships -- right up until the point when they were toppled by radical forces.
Obama's Cairo speech had the admirable goal of improving relations with the Muslim world, but the manner in which the administration has pursued this goal has been flawed from the beginning. It has focused almost exclusively on building bridges with leaders and governments. Yet in Egypt, and in Iran, a gulf has opened between the government and the citizenry. Obama has strengthened ties with the aging Mubarak while ignoring the concerns of Egypt's increasingly restive population. "What about us?" one prominent democracy activist asked. "Do we count for anything in this U.S.-Egypt relationship?"
When rebels ousted the corrupt government in Kyrgyzstan in April, they noted angrily that the United States had never stood up for their rights in the face of rigged elections and human rights abuses, placing a clear priority on strategic cooperation with the government. Watch out. If the Obama administration does not figure out how to make clear that it supports the political and human rights of Egyptian citizens, while cooperating with the Egyptian government on diplomatic and security affairs, people will be saying that about the United States in Cairo one of these days -- and maybe sooner than we expect.
There is still time to turn around this failing policy. Vice President Biden visits Egypt next week. There are, as always, numerous crises on the agenda. But if the administration wants to try to head off the next crisis, in Egypt, then Biden should use the opportunity to have a frank talk with Mubarak and other senior officials. In private, he can explain why it is so important, for both Egypt and the United States, that Mubarak take immediate steps to open the political process in this difficult period of transition. In public, Biden needs to make clear that the United States stands for free, fair and competitive elections -- for Egyptians, just as for everyone else.
Given the sorry history of the United States supporting the oppressors rather than the oppressed in that part of the world, such a commitment would be the kind of "new beginning" the Egyptian people seek.