Can the Cairo location be overcome?

Can the Cairo location be overcome?

I am unequivocally enthusiastic about the Obama administration’s plans to deliver a major address to the Muslim world — a speech I expect will be modeled along the Philadelphia speech on race, and which will hopefully present a constructive challenge to all involved. I’m less thrilled by the choice of Cairo to deliver the speech.  But hopefully Obama and his team can turn the challenges posed by the location to their advantage.

I imagine that the choice of Cairo came about by process of elimination. They probably wanted it to be a core Arab country, since he already spoke in Turkey and presumably will go on a homecoming trip to Indonesia down the road. Saudi Arabia is a non-starter, the other Gulf states are too small to carry the weight, and no North African states really fit the bill. Lebanon has an election coming up and a host of its own issues. Tehran… wouldn’t that be a corker, but no.   I had been hoping for Jerusalem — talk about high impact — but that would have been a security nightmare, a political football, and at any rate would have turned it into an “Israeli-Palestinian” event instead of a Muslim world event.  Ditto for Baghdad — security, plus it would become an “Iraq” event.  Jordan would have been good, I think, but Egypt is a weightier and richer location in Arab political and cultural terms.  So there you go.

So what’s wrong with Cairo?  Let me count the ways…  The main problem, of course, is Mubarak’s repressive regime.  It’s difficult to stomach rewarding a regime which has been systematically rolling back its limited democratic opening of a few years ago.  The choice of Cairo is already being interpreted by many Arabs and Egyptians as proof that Obama has abandoned democracy and human rights promotion.   A Presidential speech in Cairo will inevitably be compared to the 2005 speech by Condoleezza Rice calling for democracy in the Arab world.  Never mind that the Bush administration did very little to actually advance the cause of democracy in the region, barely objected to Mubarak’s crackdown midway through the 2005 Parliamentary elections and the escalating repression which followed, and by the January 2006 Hamas electoral victory had abandoned even its democratizing pretensions. The rhetoric will be compared and contrasted.

A secondary but equally serious problem is Mubarak’s foreign policy.  The Egyptians have been pushing hard on precisely the “moderate vs. radical” framing which I think Obama hopes to and needs to overcome.  Egypt has over the last few months embodied the old school approach to regional politics, even more than the Saudis — recall that it was Mubarak who tried hardest to wreck the Doha Arab Summit.  Mubarak is deeply skeptical of the outreach to Iran and has been waging an over-the-top public campaign against Hezbollah and Iran.  It earned great Arab popular outrage for its policing of the tunnels into Gaza, to the point that the Egyptians are now widely seen as Israel’s policemen.  And it seems to have badly mismanaged the Palestinian unity talks.   Choosing Cairo could therefore reinforce the Bush-era Arab divisions and undermine the hope for a genuinely new approach.

So how to turn these challenges into opportunities?  Not by ignoring them.  Instead, they could be defused simply by acknowledging them and taking them head-on.  Obama could take advantage of the location to forcefully speak out in favor of democratization and human rights.  He could point out and favorably cite Rice’s remarks, acknowledge the weak follow-through, and vow to do better by being more pragmatic and cooperative.  If he wanted to be really bold, he could reach out to the Muslim Brotherhood as an example of an organization facing a choice between “resistance” and “constructive partnership”, and criticize the Egyptian regime’s repression of the Brotherhood at a time when it was trying to play the democratic game.   He could do the same on the foreign policy front, reframing the moderate/radical divide into something more constructive.

If he does some of that with his usual dexterity, then the Cairo location could go from a negative to a net positive — and set the stage for the real purpose of the address, which I assume will be to fundamentally reframe America’s approach to its relations with the Islamic world.  As to what that should look like, I’ll save more thoughts for another day.