By choosing Cairo, Egypt as the platform for his long awaited address to the global Muslim community, President Barack Obama predictably leans on a reliable dictatorship suffocating a country that is teetering toward religious and political irrelevance.
Indeed, modern Egypt resembles its ubiquitous tourist attraction, the Sphinx, the symbolic temple guardian adorned with a human head on a prostrate lion.
Similarly, the near-30-year, brutal autocracy of Hosni Mubarak weighs heavily on the immobilised body of an exasperated, stifled and proud populace who’ve wearily observed their country, a former beacon for Arab nationalism, transformed into a loyal watchdog and stooge for anti-democratic, “pro-western” policies.
Perhaps Turkey, which Obama visited last month, served as a more ideal and dynamic location due to its successful marriage of secular democracy and Islam, as evidenced by the election of the AKP party, a moderate, pro-western political party with Islamic leanings.
Or Obama could have chosen Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation in the world, which recently held free elections and whose citizens roundly rejected rightwing, deeply conservative Islamic parties in favor of non-sectarianism and moderation.
Obama’s speech in Cairo on June will mark the third time he has addressed the Muslim world, seeking partnership and conciliation with Muslims jaded by George Bush’s unrelentingly belligerent and humiliating “war on terror” policies and his divisive, poisonous rhetoric.
In his first major interview to Al-Arabiya, Obama proclaimed: “My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy.”
Yet, Obama’s choice of Egypt is an implicit endorsement and validation of Mubarak’s dictatorship, and it reiterates the oft-spoken but albeit true cliché in the Muslim world that US merely covets selfish policy interests instead of democratization, autonomy and self determination by and for the Arab and Muslim people.
During a visit to Egypt last week, Robert Gates, the US secretary of defense, affirmed that America’s $2bn in aid to Egypt will continue, thus assuring Egypt’s perennial spot as one of US’s closest allies and recipients of monetary benevolence.
This charity flows annually despite the Egyptian government’s brutal crackdown on political opposition, the free press, dissidents and even critical bloggers whose punishment runs the ignominious gamut from harassment and arrests to torture and “mysterious disappearances”. For example, a Christian blogger, Hani Nazeer Aziz, turned himself in after the government’s security apparatus arrested two of his brothers and used them as hostages, forcing his surrender.
Mubarak’s Egypt also shares a lucrative outsourcing arrangement with the US. Instead of telecommunication and tech support services, Egypt, along with Syria, specializes in torture, so US can conveniently bypass laws, due process and international human rights. Mamdouh Habib, who was eventually sent to Guantánamo Bay, was outsourced by the US to Egypt, where he said he was “hung by his arms from hooks, repeatedly shocked, nearly drowned and brutally beaten“, according to the Washington Post.
Partaking in what is now a routine and convenient pastime for dictators of Muslim countries, Mubarak casually manipulates the constitution like Play-Doh. His government recently amended the document to outlaw opposing “religious parties” like the Muslim Brotherhood – an influential, extremely conservative Islamic political party that won 20% of parliamentary seats in 2005 elections – and neuter judicial supervision over future sham elections, thus ensuring the Mubarak dictatorship dynasty is passed on to his son, Gamal.
Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Jordan follow this brazen display of forceful attempts to stifle democracy. All of them are long-term US allies whose respective leaders have shared cozy, mutually beneficial relationships. Sadly, the US seems more committed to supporting reliable despots who toe the line than to dealing with democratic parties representative of the people’s desires and values.
If Obama is sincere in treating Muslims as partners and engaging them with mutual respect, his very pretty words must inspire legitimate policy reform. First, he must use this opportunity to empathize with the people’s concerns by denouncing the heinous crimes and oppressive, intolerant conduct of client autocrats, such as Mubarak and the Saudi royal family – just to name a couple.
Second, he must implement a long-term policy initiative that nurtures the emergence of vibrant democratic parties representing the people’s voice throughout the Middle East, especially in Egypt, which has been paralyzed by a faltering national economy and decades of unrelenting dictatorships.
Although Obama’s shameful silence on Israel’s massacre in Gaza and his increasingly unsuccessful and casualty-inducing drone attacks in Pakistan have left many Muslims frustrated, his words of conciliation, dignity and respect continue to inspire optimistic Egyptians and Muslims abroad, whose only currency now is hope for an new era of changed, enlightened US relations with the Middle East that does not depend on dictatorships and prostration.
WAJAHAT ALI is a Muslim American of Pakistani descent. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist and Attorney at Law, whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders” is the first major play about Muslim Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at http://goatmilk.wordpress.com/