Memo to Obama: Cairo Was a Mistake—UPDATE

Obama blew a real shot at reconciliation with the Muslim world by picking Cairo for his historic speech, writes The Daily Beast's Reza Aslan.

UPDATE: In his speech in Cairo on Thursday, Obama used terms that no American president would dream of using and that caught my attention. Speaking movingly of the daily humiliations of the Palestinians, Obama referred to the situation in the Palestinian territories as an “occupation,” a word sure to ripple through both the Muslim world and the United States, and he urged both sides in the conflict to live up to their obligations under the so-called road map to peace. Unfortunately, Obama made no mention of the consequences for Israel’s continued defiance of international law. Nor did he have much to offer beyond the barest of platitudes for the one issue that poll after poll in the Muslim world indicates is the biggest concern of Muslims: the lack of political rights. Obama may have felt hamstrung by the presence of his host, Hosni Mubarak, one of the worst despots in the region, a man who runs a police state in which bloggers, journalists, and democracy activists—not to mention freely elected members of parliament—are routinely rounded up and jailed on trumped-up charges. Nevertheless, the few words he did have on the topic of democracy received the loudest and most sustained applause, an indication that this is a topic that Obama cannot afford to ignore.

ORIGINAL POST: President Obama made his much-anticipated address to the Muslim world with the aim of forging a new relationship with a part of the world that was all too often demonized by the Bush administration’s destructive and counterproductive “war on terrorism” rhetoric. But in choosing Cairo as the setting for his historic speech, Obama made a grave mistake, one that could conceivably make the entire event a fruitless exercise. In fact, it just may confirm the prediction of Obama’s fiercest critics in the region, who are already decrying this speech as nothing more than a photo op.

Obama has in effect rewarded Egypt’s president for life, Hosni Mubarak, for his bloody, blatantly anti-democratic, and dictatorial rule.

No doubt Obama chose Egypt to highlight its growing role as a mediator between the Israelis and the Palestinians. But the simple fact is that Egypt is hardly “the Muslim world.” Indeed, the Muslim world now exists primarily on the margins of the Middle East. Arabs especially make up an increasingly tiny fraction of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims (about 10 percent, according to some estimates). There are now more Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa than there are Arabs of any religion. Of the top 10 most populous Muslim nations in the world, only one (Egypt) is Arab, and it comes near the end of the list. Egypt may be a strategic ally of the U.S., not to mention the second-largest recipient of American aid, but its importance is strictly regional, and this was not billed as an address to the Middle East but to the Muslim world.

Obama should have chosen Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, a moderate, pluralistic, wildly successful democratic country whose citizens just last month overwhelming voted for secular and moderate Muslim parties over the country’s more radical Islamist groups. Instead, by choosing Cairo as the backdrop to his speech, Obama has in effect rewarded Egypt’s president for life, Hosni Mubarak, for his bloody, blatantly anti-democratic, and dictatorial rule.

After a brief opening up of Egyptian society under pressure from the Bush administration, when members of the Muslim Brotherhood were allowed to contest parliamentary elections and Mubarak for the first time actually let someone run against him in the sham presidential elections he insists on having every six years, Egypt has reverted to its former police state status—with a vengeance.

Bloggers, journalists, and democracy activists have been rounded up and jailed on trumped-up charges, as have freely elected members of parliament who have dared to question Mubarak’s permanent application of Egypt’s emergency laws, in place now for more than two decades. In fact, Obama could not have chosen a more unpopular Muslim leader than Mubarak. Few have forgotten Mubarak’s complicity in the devastating war between Israel and Gaza. By shutting down the Rafah crossing—on the border between Gaza and Egypt—and watching callously as Palestinians starved on his doorstep, Mubarak arguably received as much, if not greater, blame on the Arab street for the Gaza tragedy than even Israel.

While it is becoming increasing clear that the new administration has abandoned the half-hearted and ultimately hypocritical democracy-promotion program of the previous administration, it is equally clear that the Muslim world has done no such thing. On the contrary, as I have written in these pages before, the overwhelming majority of people in the Middle East (78 percent, according to Gallup International) consider democracy “the best form of government” and continue to clamor for greater political freedoms, especially in countries like Egypt.

What the Muslim people want to hear is what kind of pressure America is willing to place on its dictatorial allies in order to force them to address their people’s aspirations for genuine political, economic, and social development.

The truth is that, after four months of Obama in the White House, the Muslim world has had its fill of his platitudes about “mutual respect.” They want to know what actions the Obama administration is willing to take to fundamentally change America’s relationship with the Muslim world. Chiefly, they want to hear about Obama’s specific policy recommendations for dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Obama should be praised for making this conflict a priority by very quickly appointing George Mitchell as his envoy to the region and bringing both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the White House for high-level meetings. However, Muslims will no longer be satisfied with vague statements of support for a Palestinian state. Even George W. Bush called for that, as he gave Israel a blank check to continue gobbling up the land meant for a future Palestine with its settlements.

Nor will they be happy with Obama's calls for an end to all settlement activity, including what Israel euphemistically calls “natural growth.” Such statements from the president will be responded to with a collective shrug from the Muslim world unless they are followed by a firm declaration of consequences for the Likud government if it continues to defy international law by rejecting the two-state solution and expanding Israeli settlements. For almost four decades, every president since Jimmy Carter has consistently demanded an end to Israel’s settlement activity in the Occupied Territories, and every Israeli government has ignored those demands, knowing they would never be backed up by any legitimate threat of consequences.

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The Netanyahu government in particular has made it abundantly clear that it has no interest in obeying the wishes of the Obama administration. Yisrael Katz, Israel’s transport minister, has flatly declared that the Israeli government “will not accept in any fashion that legal settlement activity be frozen.” Never mind that, according to international law, the Oslo Accords, and the roadmap to peace, which Israel itself has signed onto, there is no such thing as legal settlement activity in the Occupied Territories.

Until these issues are firmly and explicitly addressed, Obama’s historic speech in Cairo will go down as a tragically missed opportunity. No one believes that Obama will suddenly transform five decades of U.S. policy in a single speech. However, the expectations of the Muslim world for this president are extremely high, and thus the consequences of Obama’s failure to deliver on his promises for a new relationship with the Muslim world are even higher. This is a historic moment that must not be wasted. Because although a great many Muslims are still guardedly optimistic about the Obama administration, what I hear most when I travel through the Muslim world is: “If not now, then when? If not Barack Hussein Obama, then who?”

Xtra Insight: View our gallery of Obama's trip.

Xtra Insight: Watch and read Obama's speech.

Reza Aslan, a contributor to the Daily Beast, is assistant professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside and senior fellow at the Orfalea Center on Global and International Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He is the author of the bestseller No god but God and How to Win a Cosmic War.