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City of Brass

President Obama’s long-anticipated foreign policy address, from the venue of a major muslim capital, has been finalized – he will deliver his speech in Cairo on June 4th.

In many ways this was the obvious, “safe” choice, though my personal preference would have been Tehran. Unfortunately it seems that Iran as the Bad Guy is the dominant narrative (echoing the Shi’a Crescent fears) – Israeli prime-minister Netanyahu is in Egypt right now in fact, trying to avoid the topic of a two-state solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict by raising the specter of a scary Shi’a/Persian threat to the various Sunni/Arab regimes.

Still, Cairo is not a bad choice. It is in many ways the center of gravity of the Arab political and cultural world, and its peace treaty with Israel is also a significant message in itself. Unfortunately, Cairo is far from a perfect choice – Marc Lynch summarizes why:

So what’s wrong with Cairo? Let me count the ways… The main problem, of course, is Mubarak’s repressive regime. It’s difficult to stomach rewarding a regime which has been systematically rolling back its limited democratic opening of a few years ago. The choice of Cairo is already being interpreted by many Arabs and Egyptians as proof that Obama has abandoned democracy and human rights promotion. A Presidential speech in Cairo will inevitably be compared to the 2005 speech by Condoleeza Rice calling for democracy in the Arab world. Never mind that the Bush administration did very little to actually advance the cause of democracy in the region, barely objected to Mubarak’s crackdown midway through the 2005 Parliamentary elections and the escalating repression which followed, and by the January 2006 Hamas electoral victory had abandoned even its democratizing pretensions. The rhetoric will be compared and contrasted.

A secondary but equally serious problem is Mubarak’s foreign policy. The Egyptians have been pushing hard on precisely the “moderate vs. radical” framing which I think Obama hopes to and needs to overcome. Egypt has over the last few months embodied the old school approach to regional politics, even more than the Saudis — recall that it was Mubarak who tried hardest to wreck the Doha Arab Summit. Mubarak is deeply skeptical of the outreach to Iran and has been waging an over-the-top public campaign against Hezbollah and Iran. It earned great Arab popular outrage for its policing of the tunnels into Gaza, to the point that the Egyptians are now widely seen as Israel’s policemen. And it seems to have badly mismanaged the Palestinian unity talks. Choosing Cairo could therefore reinforce the Bush-era Arab divisions and undermine the hope for a genuinely new approach.

Of course, the way to address these challenges is to tackle the issues head-on, as Obama did in his now-legendary speech on race relations during the campaign. Obama needs to confront the issue by affirming support for democratization and human rights. Lynch comments that he could even cite the Muslim Brotherhood,

as an example of an organization facing a choice between “resistance” and “constructive partnership”, and criticize the Egyptian regime’s repression of the Brotherhood at a time when it was trying to play the democratic game.

Naurally, the Muslim Brotherhood is skeptical, but it should be noted that Obama has a genuine opportunity here, given that middle-eastern Arabs have a generally positive view of him, despite a lack of trust of the United States in general. Obama must reframe the relationship between America and the muslim world, from what is perceived now as a colonial mindset to one of mutual respect and partnership. If he does so, and follows through, we could be on the cusp of something profound indeed.

Related: Egyptian media, which is not exactly a free press, hails Obama’s choice as expected. Meanwhile, Jordan’s king has alluded to a “57-state solution” in which the entire muslim world will recognize Israel – but it is unclear if Netanyahu can reign in his extremist right-wing allies in Israel’s government, or whether he even wants to. Finally, see Wajahat Ali’s decidedly more pessimistic take on Cairo.

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