CAIRO, Egypt — Obama's speech in Cairo just over one year ago infused Egyptians with a sense of hope. When Obama directly addressed Cairo's autocrats, saying “You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion," he gave Egyptians reason to believe the U.S. wouldn't always serve only to prop up Mubarak's billboard.
And yet, the relationship between Washington and Cairo hasn’t changed much at all.
The U.S. still showers Egypt with billions in aid, while Egypt browbeats its people. Washington and Cairo have traditionally said little about one another publicly, and this is still the case. Like his predecessor, Obama has prioritized meetings with Arab leaders other than Mubarak, who is a mid-level player in regional activities.
But the Obama administration will soon face a major juncture with Egypt in its road of Mideast policy. With Egyptian elections next year and the largest Arab country preparing to elect — or be forced to ratify — an Egyptian president, Obama must choose whether to remain relatively quiet about the prospect of electoral desecration in Egypt (the old way) or unequivocally support free Egyptian elections (a new path).
For the first time in generations, Egypt is experiencing some pressure to feature a legitimate presidential election. The country is abuzz over the potential presidential candidacy of Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Prize-winning former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
ElBaradei has been tirelessly granting interviews discussing change in Egypt, and the geriatric dictatorship in Cairo is visibly shaken. ElBaradei is not the typical globally unknown dissident the Egyptian regime can simply dump in jail. He’s a world-famous, tested leader and his political momentum is growing in Egypt by the day.
As Egypt shows some small possibility of a non-laughable election, Obama can be reticent during the run-up to the contest, or he can speak out beforehand and put his full weight behind a fair process. Speaking directly to his beneficiaries in Cairo, he should bluntly hint that, although the U.S. has for decades financed Middle East regimes that billyclub their way through “elections,” there’s nothing written that says such silliness is interminable.
Some Middle East observers argue that, if the U.S. really wants to witness change in the Middle East, it should avoid vocal public support for reformers, because ties to America delegitimize agents of change on the Arab street. Steven Cook, for example, argued recently in Foreign Affairs that, “If ElBaradei actually has a reasonable chance of fostering political reform in Egypt, then U.S. policymakers would best serve his cause by not acting strongly.”
I disagree. While it’s unnecessary for the Obama administration to openly show support for a specific democratic result, such as an ElBaradei victory, it is both appropriate and necessary for Obama to unreservedly endorse the democratic process prior to Egyptian elections.
George W. Bush often over-focused on specific political results in the Arab-Muslim world — openly favoring specific political outcomes in places like Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Gaza. Obama doesn't need to wear an ElBaradei T-shirt on a visit to the Pyramids, but he should be clear on how the U.S. feels about the Egyptian regime extending unelected brutality into a fourth decade.
Opposition groups in Egypt embrace outside support — American or otherwise — for democratic processes, for they know they need it. When Egypt recently extended its nearly 30-year-old state of martial law for another two years, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly objected. Her response was covered on the front page and above the fold in Al-Masry Al-Yom, Egypt’s largest opposition newspaper. Egyptian reformers find hope in criticism of the Egyptian regime by world leaders — even leaders with whom Arabs often find themselves at odds on other regional issues.
When the Egyptian elections draw even closer, Obama shouldn’t simply trot out Clinton or have Susan Rice deliver a useless statement to the United Nations. Just as he did in Cairo, Obama should speak directly to the Egyptian regime and its oppressed, insisting that Egypt’s style of democracy be determined by its 80 million inhabitants rather than its army.
Many Egyptians are still looking for the "new way forward" Obama spoke of in 2009. Now it’s time to take a step with them.
Justin D. Martin is a journalism professor at The American University in Cairo. Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_D_Martin or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.