Andrew Hammond – Reuters May 20, 2011
U.S. President Barack Obama’s speech on uprisings sweeping the Arab world show Washington is struggling to guide democratic movements that took it by surprise, Arab analysts said, threatening U.S. regional allies.
Obama went to Cairo University to address the Muslim world in a landmark speech in 2009 that promised support for democracy that Washington assumed would come thanks to outside pressure on entrenched rulers in countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
But on Thursday he stood at a State Department podium in Washington to discuss protest movements that have been mainly peaceful and driven by ordinary Arabs, removing autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt but so far failing to bring change in Yemen, Bahrain, Syria or Libya.
The stark contrast in settings said much about a confused U.S. reaction to Arab revolts where it has appeared to be irrelevant, and its challenge now in nudging them towards conclusions compatible with U.S. foreign policy goals.
Those include isolating Iran, ensuring continued Gulf Arab oil supplies and promoting Arab ties with Israel. Obama’s failure to end Israeli settlement activity in the occupied West Bank, where Palestinians seek statehood, has done much to quash the hope many Arabs had in him two years ago.
Reflecting that disillusion, Egyptian activist Hossam El-Hamalawy wrote on social media site Twitter: “Obama gave a speech? Really? As if I care”.
Arab analysts said Obama’s words were impressive but came largely too late and reflected U.S. fears of the consequences of uprisings without guidance from the West.
He talked of universal values of self-determination, democracy and individual rights that the United States would actively support but also of the need for “responsible regional leadership” from Egypt and Tunisia.
Emad Gad, analyst at the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said activists had a negative view of Obama because of Washington’s long support for former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, toppled by unrest in February.
“Washington took a position against the Egyptian revolution and supported Mubarak until his final days in office. Security of Israel was the important issue,” he said, adding that the speech would do nothing to change that prevalent view.
Obama appointed a special envoy to Egypt during the unrest whose public comments suggested his remit was to save Mubarak, not meet popular demands that a dictator of 30 years must fall. Activists say massive U.S. financial aid only boosted Mubarak’s domination and stunted grassroots pressure for democracy.
TALK ON BAHRAIN, NOTHING ON SAUDI
Activists in other countries have been hoping for more support from Washington.
Obama made a point on Thursday of criticising Gulf Arab ally Bahrain, host to the U.S. Fifth Fleet and seen as a bulwark against Iran, for cracking down on protests led by its majority Shi’ite population.
“We have insisted publicly and privately that mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahraini citizens,” Obama said, although he added that Iran had tried to take advantage of the turmoil.
A Bahraini writer who did not wish to be named for fear of arrest praised Obama for speaking out on Bahrain, where hundreds of democracy activists have been arrested and some have died in detention.
“For the first time the United States is prepared to speak out on principles and values rather than short term interests only,” he said.
But Obama made no mention of Saudi Arabia, which sent troops to Bahrain to help quell protests there, and gave $36 billion in aid to Saudi police, military, administrators and clerics as a reward for not supporting protest calls.
Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy which tolerates no dissent, has been a lynchpin of U.S. policy in the region for decades and analysts say its rulers were shocked by Obama’s last-minute ditching of Mubarak.
“Maybe there is no uprising there but it doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t talk about democracy in these countries,” said Hassan Nafaa, an Egyptian political scientist.
Obama talked of women’s rights, in apparent reference to Saudi Arabia, but said democracy did not have to resemble the system in the United States, an apparent concession to Saudi arguments that it is an Islamic state ruling by sharia law.
On Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and Washington are working behind the scenes to ensure a dignified exit for veteran autocrat Ali Abdullah Saleh, Obama said Saleh “needs to follow through on his commitment to transfer power”.
EGYPT POLICY SHIFTS
Washington’s Gulf Arab allies fret about policy shifts in Egypt since Mubarak left office, as Cairo has opened contacts with Iran, eased the closure of its border to Hamas-ruled Gaza and backed a Palestinian unity government between the Islamist Hamas and Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas.
Obama promised debt reduction to Egypt and other aid for fledgling Egyptian and Tunisian democracies, while dampening talk of a Palestinian declaration of independence in occupied territories in September.
He went beyond his Cairo speech in 2009 by talking of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. But he reiterated his commitment to Israel’s security in borders that guarantee its future as a Jewish democratic state, a recognition Israel is demanding from Palestinians in any final peace deal.
Analysts suggested U.S. aid will have strings attached on foreign policy. “What Obama didn’t talk about today: aid conditionality,” wrote Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Centre in Qatar on Twitter.
“My prediction on Obama’s speech: Arab leaders won’t like it much. Arab reformers won’t like it much,” Hamid said. “This is the Obama style: Try to appeal to everyone and end up disappointing everyone.”
(Additional reporting by Cairo bureau; Editing by Jon Hemming)