U.S. President Barack Obama will be soon in Cairo, where he will deliver a historic address to the Islamic world. However, President Obama’s decision to speak to the ‘Muslim world’ from Egypt has provoked a great deal of head-scratching.
Many political observers hoped that the President would pick a location outside of the ‘Arab world’, to emphasize the diversity that exists among Muslim nations. Indonesia - where Obama grew up - had been indicated as a suitable location, whereas others thought that he would have chosen Morocco, a moderate Islamic country, which courageously broke its diplomatic ties with Iran. However, there were good reasons to choose Egypt.
Egypt still is an important key player in the region and the US cannot dismiss that. Furthermore, President Hosni Mubarak took a strong stance against Iran and Hezbollah; for this reason Egypt is now a main target of Iranian terrorism. In the last period, the US neglected Egypt. The leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, made fun of Egypt, saying that the US forgot about Cairo. Unfortunately, UN Ambassador Susan Rice in an interview, translated by MEMRI, to the Saudi daily, Al-Hayat, shows a total ignorance of the fact that Iran is trying to destabilize Egypt and on the recent Hezbollah’s attempts in the country.
Hence, Obama, by choosing to go to Egypt, might wisely want to make up for the neglect of his administration in the last months in this part of the region. He will also have to address the political rift that is dividing the Muslim world. On one side of the rift there are the so-called “moderate” states such a Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Gulf Emirates, and Egypt. On the other side, the radical axis led by Iran and Syria along with their proxies Hezbollah and Hamas, with Qatar giving strong support. In Egypt, Obama might acknowledge that the Muslim world will understand that he took a clear stance against Iran and the Shia political ambitions in the region. He could make clear that Iran does not represent the future for this world and that, in this endeavour, the role of Egypt becomes pivotal.
Egypt is also the birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood, which recently aligned itself with Iran. Egypt, therefore, is in a crucial position for the ongoing strife between moderate and radical Islam, as it contains both facets of this struggle.
On the other hand, Egypt is not yet a democratic country. Obama, during his interview with the satellite Saudi news channel Al-Arabiya, and in his speech to the Turkish Parliament, emphasized the value of respect and the willingness on behalf of the United States to listen to the grievances of these nations. Now, human rights activists are asking him to advocate fundamental rights in the Middle East and to denounce the ills of autocratic political culture.
Ayman Nour, leader of the Egyptian opposition party Al-Ghad, wrote in the Washington Post that “Obama's visit may influence the future of this part of the world. Will he use this historic opportunity to say that the world we shape for our children should be one of democracy, justice and peace, or will he favor a world of oppression, injustice and suffering by clinging to oppressive regimes and aggressive hard-liners? [ ]When justice and democracy are traded for short-term political gains, we lay the bricks for a world of oppression, tyranny and conflict”.
However, the likelihood that Obama will make any room, in his speech for effective criticism of the Egyptian regime is quite low. Clear signs from his administration indicate that the United States is willing to shelve its thrust for political reform in the region in order to gain that government’s cooperation on other issues.
So, if human rights are relegated to a long-range program, for the short-range program the Obama administration will and should concentrate in coalescing and fortifying an alliance that can withstand and counter the offensive that Iran and its allies have launched for hegemony over the region. And America should also provide leadership to this alliance.
The problem is, how reliable can the flip-flopping Obama administration be in guiding this alliance at a point in history where is lowering America’s defenses?