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 , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    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.
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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.

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.

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"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.

Cairo receives $2 billion in US aid every year, more than any country except Israel.

"We hope that Obama will seriously advocate for democracy and human rights in the Arab world, or at least stay silent," says Gamal Eid, the director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. "Not saying anything would be better than saying different things at different times just to negotiate with the Egyptian government."

A nod to longstanding interests?

For Ayman Nour, a liberal opposition leader and former presidential candidate, a clear picture of Obama's attitude to Egypt has emerged.

"It is all a sign that the next period will be one of reconciliation between the Egyptian government and the United States, to the detriment of principles and for the sake of more hardened interests," says Mr. Nour, who spent four years in jail on charges widely seen as tied to his decision to challenge Mr. Mubarak in the 2005 presidential election.

His release in February, combined with the ruling Monday by an appeals court to overturn Ibrahim's most recent conviction and two-year jail sentence, are seen by many as conciliatory gestures by Mubarak toward Obama.

Essam El Erian, a prominent member of Egypt's powerful Muslim Brotherhood, a banned but officially tolerated movement that controls 20 percent of the seats in Parliament's lower house, says "it is only natural" that Obama's first concern be American interests – but that human rights should factor into that.

"If America wants to feed its interests in this part of the world then it should be friends with the people and not with their dictators," he says. "Let the people choose their own governments and their own lives."

'We don't need advice' from Obama

But those close to the Mubarak regime say the issue is not so black and white. Egypt has never responded well to American criticism, say analysts and regime insiders, and if change is ever going to come to Cairo, it will have to be homegrown.

Mohsen Said, a Cairo University professor and member of the Policy Committee of the ruling National Democratic Party, thinks Obama "should be subtle about addressing democracy."

People all across Egypt "have high hopes for Obama," he says, but he should avoid "a big debate about democracy."

"If I were in his shoes, I really would not overemphasize it," says Professor Said. "This is something that Bush was very harsh in imposing on countries that did not want it. Obama cannot say he is a man of peace, and then try to force ideas on people."

Diaa Rashwan, a political analyst at Cairo's Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a think tank with government ties, says the US should leave democracy to Egyptians.

"The US cannot achieve democracy for us," he says. "The US is not part of it. It would be more useful for Obama to declare a stand on issues the US is already involved in," he adds, like Iraq or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "We don't need advice from him, we need solid positions."

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