Cairo — Egyptian officials are lining up to praise U.S. President Barack Obama's address to the Islamic world delivered in Cairo Thursday. But local campaigners for political reform say the speech was disappointingly light on the issues of democracy and human rights.
"Obama spoke very briefly and in very general terms on these two subjects," opposition journalist and reform campaigner Abdel-Halim Kandil told IPS. "Despite the hype, Obama's speech was little more than an exercise in public relations."
Obama arrived in the Egyptian capital amid much fanfare Jun. 4, where he delivered a seminal address aimed at Arab and Islamic audiences. The U.S. President came to Egypt via Saudi Arabia, Washington's other main Arab ally in the region, where he spent a day meeting with Saudi Arabian leaders and officials.
Ahead of his speech, Obama also met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Although talks were held behind closed doors, the two heads of state reportedly focused on regional issues, including the conflicts in Iraq and Central Asia, impending elections in Lebanon, and the volatile Israel- Palestine conflict.
Obama's much-awaited address, in which he called for "a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world," covered a range of issues. These included the dangers of violent extremism; prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians; nuclear weapons proliferation; democracy; civil liberties; and economic development.
On democracy, Obama declared his 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," he said. "Governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments - provided they govern with respect for all their people."
Officials of Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) hastened to praise the "historic" address.
"Obama's speech reignited hope for new U.S. policymaking," wrote Osama Saraya, editor-in-chief of state daily Al-Ahram. Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, head of Cairo's prestigious Al-Azhar school of Islamic learning (who is appointed by the President), declared that the address "succeeded in touching the hearts and minds of Muslims."
But local reform campaigners and human rights activists were considerably less impressed.
Bahaieddin Hasan, head of the Cairo Centre for Human Rights Studies, described the address as "superficial" and devoid of details. "There didn't appear to be any concern for either democratic reform or human rights," he was quoted as saying in the Friday edition of independent daily Al-Dustour. "This came as a major disappointment."
Hisham Kassem, a leading Cairo-based rights activist, agreed. "The Obama administration appears to have put human rights and political reform at the bottom of the agenda," he told IPS. "It's noteworthy that only 367 words of the speech out of a total of almost 6,000 were devoted to democracy and human rights. This tiny proportion appears to be an indication of Obama's priorities."
Kassem said that after a full five months in the presidency, Obama "still hasn't appointed an assistant secretary of state for human rights, while he has also done away with the Bush-era position of special envoy for human rights and political reform."
Kandil said that Obama's choice of Egypt - ruled by Mubarak under a draconian state of emergency for 28 years - sends the wrong message. Saudi Arabia that Obama visited earlier lacks even pretence of democracy.
"Obama's visit was a show of support for both the dictatorial Egyptian regime and the criminal policies of Israel regarding the Palestinians," he said. "It represents an acknowledgement of Egypt's role in serving U.S. and Israeli policy objectives, while totally overlooking the regime's dismal record on human rights and political reform.
"The government, in crisis due to skyrocketing inflation and enormous popular disaffection, is hoping that Obama's visit will somehow bolster its legitimacy and lengthen its dwindling lifespan," said Kandil.
Kandil is also coordinator of the pro-democracy Kefaya movement, which decided to boycott the event. "Instead of attending, Kefaya members staged a protest march in downtown Cairo on the eve of the speech in order to remind the U.S. President that he is visiting a dictatorship," he said.
Kandil said the new Obama administration differs from its predecessor "only in style and not in substance."
In 2004 and 2005, the George W. Bush administration pushed Cairo hard to invite broader political participation and human rights improvements. It later backtracked on these demands after unexpected victories by the Muslim Brotherhood opposition movement in parliamentary elections.
Kandil pointed to recent statements made by U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates as a more reliable indicator of the Obama administration's long-term approach to the issue. Early last month, Gates, after meeting with Mubarak, announced that U.S. military assistance to Egypt would not be made conditional on Egypt's human rights record or the pace of democratic reform.
"Democratic change can't be expected to come from the White House, because, ultimately, the U.S. and Israel - like the regime itself - don't want real democracy in Egypt," said Kandil. "They know that if fair elections were ever held, they would be handily won by opponents of U.S. policy and the American-Zionist project in the region.
"And as for human rights, the U.S. is a constant perpetrator of rights violations in Iraq and Afghanistan - and now Pakistan - while simultaneously overlooking violations committed by Israel and its own Arab allies," he said.