NEW YORK — People in the Middle East are used to soaring rhetoric that leads nowhere. They have a term for it: haki fadi — empty talk.
In his appeal to the Arab world, President Barack Obama is dangerously close to being full of haki fadi. As a powerful and eloquent orator, Obama has vowed to revamp America’s relationship with the Arab and Muslim worlds after the disastrous presidency of George W. Bush.
But as president, Obama has proven to be a hardheaded political realist who is reluctant to disrupt U.S. alliances with the region’s many authoritarian rulers. One of the biggest disappointments of his administration so far is its failure to advance democracy and human rights, especially in the Middle East.
Obama took up the lofty oratory of democracy promotion in his much-celebrated speech to the Muslim world last year. “America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election,” he said at Cairo University on June 4. “But I do have an unyielding 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.”
Yet Obama chose to deliver this message in Egypt, which is ruled by one of the most oppressive regimes in the Middle East. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has clung to power since 1981 under emergency laws that allow him to imprison thousands of dissidents without charge or trial, and to stifle peaceful political activity. As a strategic ally of the United States, Mubarak’s regime receives nearly $1.8 billion a year in U.S. assistance, making it the second-highest beneficiary of American foreign aid after Israel.
The Obama administration inherited a decades-old U.S. policy of supporting autocratic regimes — like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan — in exchange for political acquiescence. Virtually all governments in the Middle East rely on vast secret police agencies to keep them in power, using the “war on terror” as a cover to silence any opposition. These regimes put on a veneer of “stability” for the West, but in reality their political systems are weak, corrupt and calcified.
In June 2005, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the world that America would no longer support repressive regimes in the name of political expediency. “For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region — and we achieved neither,” she said at the American University in Cairo. “Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.”
For a brief period, Rice’s message resonated in the Arab world. It was five months after Iraqis showed extraordinary bravery by turning out in droves to vote in the parliamentary elections of January 2005. In Lebanon, a popular revolt had helped dislodge years of Syrian military and political domination. At that moment, the United States could have encouraged some genuine change in the region.
But things fell apart when Washington confronted its first test: In late 2005, a small group of Egyptian judges challenged Mubarak’s authoritarian regime. The United States stood by silently while Mubarak crushed public protests, and the Arab world understood, correctly, that Washington had given up on democracy — or had never meant it in the first place.
It is these contradictions between U.S. rhetoric and actions that lead people in the Middle East to distrust the United States and spin conspiracy theories about its motives. When the United States continues backing autocrats like Mubarak, against the will of their people, then Washington loses much of its leverage to demand reform from other repressive regimes like Iran and Syria. And favoring stability over democratic values will come back to haunt America in the long term.
If the United States has any hope of nurturing political activists in the Arab world, it must support an independent judiciary and a free press — the institutions that help democracy thrive. As Rice herself said in her 2005 speech: “The day must come when the rule of law replaces emergency decrees, and when the independent judiciary replaces arbitrary justice. Opposition groups must be free to assemble, and to participate, and to speak to the media.” But there was no U.S. action behind that rhetoric.
Washington fears that supporting reform in the region would bring Islamist groups to power. Without any democratic space for popular-based political movements to emerge, Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have the greatest influence through their social service networks. These well-organized groups would likely win any free balloting — so the autocratic rulers have a convenient bogeyman to avoid elections. But democracy is not just about voting. It is a slow process of promoting individual rights and building up civil society, a free press and state institutions. These efforts take time and they make a far less glamorous photo-op than a quick election.
Since Obama’s Cairo speech, his administration has stayed remarkably quiet on democracy promotion and has been reluctant to criticize U.S. allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The administration has also blocked congressional threats of linking future U.S. aid to democratic reform or improvements in Egypt’s human rights record. Even in Iraq, the administration remained silent after a parliamentary committee recently barred a prominent Sunni leader, Saleh al-Mutlaq, from national elections in March.
The president and his aides regard these policies as political realism. People in the region see them as yet another example of the United States favoring expediency over real change.
Obama has a tremendous capacity to elicit empathy. He has an opportunity to fundamentally change the Arab world’s perception of America. If he can make the United States a more sympathetic power — a country that sticks up for the little guy and does not tolerate repression — that will better serve U.S. interests and security in the long run. But the last thing the Middle East needs is more haki fadi.
Mohamad Bazzi is an assistant professor at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute and an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
(Read an overview of how the world views Obama one year later.)