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Egyptian reform activists wary of Obama's visit to Cairo

Many see his decision to deliver a major speech in Egypt as a nod of tacit support for the regime's authoritarian rule.

By Liam StackCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 29, 2009

A bus passes in front of Egypt's Cairo University on Thursday, the site where US President Barack Obama is expected to address the Muslim world on June 4.

Amr Nabil/AP

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Cairo

In a highly anticipated visit to Cairo next week, US President Barack Obama will deliver an address to the Muslim world meant to open a new chapter in its ties with the United States.

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But that is not the only message he will be sending, say many Egyptian democracy activists. They worry the visit signals the new administration's support for Egypt's autocratic President Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled for 28 years, and that the man who came to office promising "Yes, we can," did not include Arabs in that promise.

Human rights have long been the electrified third rail of the Egyptian-American relationship. The Bush administration pressured Egypt on democracy and human rights in 2005, only to later reverse course, seeming to choose stability over human rights and democracy. Activists now express concern that Mr. Obama's choice of Cairo shows his intent to carry on that policy.

"Where you deliver the message is part of the message," says Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a democracy activist who has lived in exile in the US since 2007 and was twice convicted of "tarnishing Egypt's reputation" for his critical writings. Few people know the ins and outs of Washington's shifting attitude towards Egyptian reform better than Mr. Ibrahim, currently a visiting professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

"Delivering a message to the Muslim world from a capital whose ruler is authoritarian does not speak very well of Obama's stand on democracy and human rights in Egypt or the Arab and Muslim world," he says.

Conflicting messages

Human rights activists say the Obama administration has already begun delivering mixed messages on reform in the region.

On Thursday, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters that defending human rights is in Egypt's best interest.

"It is in Egypt's interest to move more toward democracy and to exhibit more respect for human rights," she said, according to the Associated Press, adding that Obama would raise the issues during his visit to Cairo.

But those remarks are unlikely to ease the anxieties of Egyptian activists. On a visit to China in February, she told reporters that human rights "can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate-change crisis, and the security crises," and that it might be better for countries "to agree to disagree."

Not linking military aid and political reform

Visiting Cairo in early May, Defense Secretary Robert Gates sounded a similar note. He told reporters that American military aid to Egypt would not be conditional upon political reform, as Congress attempted to make it in 2007.

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