Advice From Obama in Egypt to Obama in DC

[Ed. Note: There are reports of shots fired in Alexandria, but it appears the military was trying to separate pro- and anti-Mubarak groups.  Calm seems to be restored.]

In June 2009, President Obama delivered a powerful speech in Cairo, addressing the relationship of the US and Islam. Given what’s been happening on the streets of that city during the last week, Obama might want to go back and review his words from that speech. They were quite good, and offer a fair bit of sound advice for the foreign policy mess he finds himself in right now.

From 2009:

I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.

I do so recognizing that change cannot happen overnight. No single speech can eradicate years of mistrust, nor can I answer in the time that I have all the complex questions that brought us to this point. But I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors. There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground. As the Holy Koran tells us, “Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.” That is what I will try to do – to speak the truth as best I can, humbled by the task before us, and firm in my belief that the interests we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces that drive us apart.

My, but that sounds different today. . . .

That line about comments “said only behind closed doors” brings to mind the recent disclosure of cables from the US Embassy in Cairo back to DC, like this from a Jan 12, 2010 cable giving background on Egypt’s Emergency Law:

Emergency Law Cases Not Related to Terrorism

8. The government has also used the Emergency Law in cases not related to terrorism. The GOE [government of Egypt] jailed blogger Hany Nazir under the Emergency Law in October 2008 following posts deemed offensive to Christianity and Islam. The GOE has also imprisoned activist and blogger Musad Abu Fagr since December 2007 under the Emergency Law following posts about difficulties faced by Sinai Bedouin. In 2008, the government arrested a blogger from the heterodox Islamic Quranic sect under the Emergency Law, and detained him for approximately 90 days.

9. In recent years, the government has used the Emergency Law to arrest large numbers of Muslim Brotherhood (MB) members without charge in the run-up to the 2005 parliamentary elections, the 2008 local council elections and the 2010 parliamentary elections. The government released most of the detainees after holding them from periods ranging from a few days to several months.

10. The government used the Emergency Law to arrest and prosecute 49 individuals in connection to clashes that broke out between workers and police during an April 2008 labor strike in the Delta town of Mahalla. In December 2008, a state security court convicted 22 people on charges of assaulting police officers, robbery, and possession of unlicensed weapons. In 2004, a state security court convicted 26 men linked to the banned Islamic Liberation Party for belonging to a banned organization. Several defendants alleged the government tortured them to obtain confessions.

From where things stand today, it might have been nice to have said these things in public. Yes, we addressed things like these in private, as this Jan 31, 2010 cable describes, but privately raising concerns allows them to be privately dismissed all too easily.

But that 2009 speech was only getting started. From there it went on:

Of course, recognizing our common humanity is only the beginning of our task. Words alone cannot meet the needs of our people. These needs will be met only if we act boldly in the years ahead; and if we understand that the challenges we face are shared, and our failure to meet them will hurt us all.

Eighteen months have gone by since these words were spoken to the people of Egypt. Today, they wonder if they will be backed up with concrete support for their rights, or if the US government will continue to speak behind closed doors to Mubarak, the leader that oppresses them.

Obama was right back then: “words alone” are not enough. The time has arrived to turn “words alone” into something more.

Obama addressed a number of issues in his 2009 speech, starting with a discussion of violent extremism and the US involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. He then moved to talking about Israel and Palestine, and from there went on to discuss nuclear proliferation. But his next section bears re-reading today:

The fourth issue that I will address is democracy.

I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq. So let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.

That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.

There is no straight line to realize this promise. But this much is clear: governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments – provided they govern with respect for all their people.

This last point is important because there are some who advocate for democracy only when they are out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others. No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

At the time, these words were spoken in the abstract. Behind the scenes, the Obama administration knew that he was talking about the concrete reality in Egypt. In January 2009, Ambassador Margaret Scobey told her superiors in DC of the “routine and pervasive” police brutality in Egypt, including the “torturing of Muslim Brotherhood activists who are deemed to pose a political threat.” After the speech, another of the recently released cables (this one from July 2009) makes clear how far the Egyptian government had departed from the idea of democracy and being able to freely speak your mind.


— (C) A recent series of selective GOE actions against journalists, bloggers and even an amateur poet illustrates the variety of methods available to the GOE to suppress critical opinion, including an array of investigative authorities and public and private legal actions.

— (U) A journalist was jailed on defamation charges for the first time in recent memory, and an amateur poet was imprisoned for three months for allegedly defaming President Mubarak.

— (C) The GOE arrested three Muslim Brotherhood (MB)-affiliated bloggers, and has repeatedly used the Emergency Law to block a court ordered release of another jailed blogger.

— (C) The government is working with NDP operatives to flood the courts with suits against political enemies, using tactics such as fabricating assault charges against a journalist and filing a profanity case against a novelist.

— (C) The GOE’s actions are examples of where it decides to draw redlines in an environment featuring frequent press articles and blogs critical of both the regime and President Mubarak.

— (C) These GOE actions, combined with arrests of MB officials (septel), could be the start of an attempt to tighten the political environment in advance of the 2010 parliamentary elections.

These kinds of actions by the government of Egypt, described in more detail in the body of the cables, are the kinds of things that drove the people of Egypt out into the streets. Obama’s self-stated 2009 commitment to governments that reflect the will of the people is being put to the test today by these protesters, as surely as they are testing the will of the government of Hosni Mubarak.

Like advocating for democracy only when one is out of power, supporting oppressive governments in the name of fighting terrorism never succeeds, because aligning the US with those who would suppress their own people by force will only result in more terrorism in the long run. The fact that this oppression is carried out with US-made weaponry only makes matters worse. As Spencer noted, “the U.S. has thirty years and as many billions of dollars invested in shaping the [Egyptian] Army’s behavior.”

But back to that 2009 speech. As it moved toward its conclusion, President Obama said this:

The issues that I have described will not be easy to address. But we have a responsibility to join together on behalf of the world we seek – a world where extremists no longer threaten our people, and American troops have come home; a world where Israelis and Palestinians are each secure in a state of their own, and nuclear energy is used for peaceful purposes; a world where governments serve their citizens, and the rights of all God’s children are respected. Those are mutual interests. That is the world we seek. But we can only achieve it together.

Seems to me like President Obama in DC might want to listen today to what President Obama said back then in Cairo. Those common principles of which he spoke in 2009 – “principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings” – demand not just words, but action. They demand not just action, but bold action.

And they demand it now.

(photo h/t: Chuck Kennedy, official WH photographer)

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