Speaking Truth to Power

Activists from around the Middle East tell FP what they'd like to hear from Obama's speech on Thursday.

Adam Altan/AFP
Adam Altan/AFP

As U.S. President Barack Obama prepares to give a seminal speech on the Middle East on Thursday, Foreign Policy asked key dissidents and activists across the region what they'd like to see from the administration.


Fadi Elsalameen

As U.S. President Barack Obama prepares to give a seminal speech on the Middle East on Thursday, Foreign Policy asked key dissidents and activists across the region what they’d like to see from the administration.


Fadi Elsalameen

Research fellow, New America Foundation

In light of the "Arab spring," how should the United States change its approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict? What should it learn from the uprisings?

The "Arab spring" sent a clear message to the United States: Democracy cannot be exported, but it can be imported. Now Israel is no longer the only democracy in the Middle East. True American interests and democratic values are aligned with Arab masses’ demands and aspirations for the first time. Israel’s occupation of Palestine is the only credible threat to a closer relationship between the United States and Arab democratic regimes. The fact that Arab masses crossed the Syrian-Israeli borders into Israel, while chanting: "The people want to liberate Palestine" is a clear sign that, if the United States wants a relationship with both the Arabs and Israel, this relationship can no longer be based on the old dynamics.

In an ideal world, what would you like Obama to say on Thursday when addressing events in your country?

I would like to dream that a Palestinian state is just an Obama speech away. Sadly, Obama’s speeches on the Middle East are like Advil pills — if the first one doesn’t work, take another. Obama and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas failed to secure an Israeli promise to stop settlement expansions on Palestinian land. Obama’s speech should encourage Abbas to declare a Palestinian state not just for the sake of the Palestinians, but also for the sake of Israel.


Amine Ghali

Program director, Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center

What did you learn about the United States’ foreign policy in its response to the uprising in your country?
The United States was reluctant at first to support the popular uprising because of two reasons. First, the Tunisian revolt was the first of its kind in the Arab region. Secondly, policymakers and U.S. "antennas" on the ground did not know who were they dealing with because the popular revolt had no obvious leadership.

When the uprising was confirmed, the United States changed its approach and demonstrated greater support to the new interim government(s) and to the democratization process. Rather than interfering directly into politics, the U.S. chose to adopt a more timid, less visible approach. This approach is rather a good one. However, it should be reinforced at two levels: a supportive political discourse (speeches, support at regional and international institutions) and by a stronger, more visible economic support (investments, job creation, economic exchange programs).

In an ideal world, what would you like Obama to say on Thursday when addressing events in your country?

Tunisia is a country that opened the door for a Tunisian democratic revolution; any forces and countries that hinder the success of this revolution are opponents of democratization; the free world will not remain silent in any such setback.


Nabila Hamza

President, Foundation for the Future

What did you learn about U.S. foreign policy as a result of its response to the uprising in Tunisia?
U.S. foreign policy can adapt– albeit slowly– when faced with a transformative shift in geopolitics. In Tunisia, the U.S. eventually recognized the historical significance of the moment and of the Tunisian people’s struggle for their basic rights and freedoms. Nonetheless, such a response should have come sooner in order to gain the full trust of the Tunisian people. Foreign policy is about more than state-to-state relations, and in order to succeed in the region, the U.S. needs to forge stronger relationships with the people of these countries based consistently on democratic values.
In an ideal world, what would you like Obama to say on Thursday?
Although each country in the region presents its own set of challenges for the United States, Obama needs to make an unequivocal statement in support of people throughout the region. He should state explicitly that democracy will no longer be relegated to a secondary priority when other interests are at stake. He should send a warning to autocratic allies that the U.S. will no longer turn a blind eye if these regimes continue to ignore the demands of their people for freedom and genuine political reforms. Moreover the United States should reinforce the pressure and take significant steps in isolating the Syrian government, and unequivocally request an immediate end to the ongoing bloody crackdown on political protests in the country.

For countries such as Tunisia and Egypt that are taking steps toward greater political freedom, Obama should announce increased, and more focused, economic support targeting job creation and sustainable growth. Providing greater aid to Tunisia and Egypt – a "genuine democracy dividend" – would not only help them battle some of their economic ills, but it would be a powerful signal to people in the region that the United States supports their economic and political aspirations. Progress in terms of employment and investment will resonate strongly in the region, which requires 100 million new jobs by 2020 to curb the massive unemployment rate, currently one of the highest in the world.


The Arab-Israeli conflict has been for decades now (jointly with the support to authoritarian and corrupt regimes) possibly the single most damaging issue to the American image and reputation in the region. One of the most striking features of recent U.S. policy toward the Middle East has been that it often appeared out of touch with current realities to the point of being almost anachronistic and ‘old-fashioned’ so to say. We are all aware of how complicated is the Arab-Israeli scenario, but people in the region feel that the US should put in an extra push to hopefully disentangle this knot and achieve a solution which is perceived as reasonably just and acceptable to all parties involved



Sherif Mansour

Senior program officer, Freedom House

What did you learn about the United States’ foreign policy in their response to the uprising in Egypt?

It was clear to me that the Obama administration did not have a strategy to deal with Egypt, let alone all other countries in the region. They took, and still for the large part, the position of no position. In order to avoid criticism, and anger from one party or another, they ended up upsetting everyone. I learnt that they are only ready to do and say the right things, when it is convenient, and not when it is unbeneficial.
In an ideal world, what would you like Obama to say on Thursday?

Ideally, I would like Obama to start his speech by recognizing the policy mistakes his administration made prior to and during the uprising in Egypt and in other countries in the region on the issue of democracy promotion.

I hope he would speak directly to the remaining Arab dictators, acknowledging that while they may be anxious and concerned about the recent political uprisings, they should play a constructive role in bringing about meaningful changes in their countries rather than standing in the way of progress-or as Obama has put it in the past, against the ‘arc of history’.

I also hope he would announce the U.S.’s unequivocal support for this new "Middle East", in which the U.S. will ally with the people and partner with them on mutual interests, rather than the interests of a few. As with the case of Turkey, he would rather deal with a strong partner, who may not agree with the U.S. on every policy issue, rather than deal with a corrupt and vulnerable ruler who uses U.S. support for its own survival.

Finally, I hope he would say that the U.S. supports "Axis of Good" in the region, including countries like Tunisia and Egypt, to be the driving force and model for democratic transition in the region. That he will make available all relevant U.S. resources and leverage in the region to ensure their transitions run smoothly and overcome attempts by internal and external to disrupt this process.


Nabil Elhouni

Benghazi, Libya

What did you learn about the United States’ foreign policy in its response to the uprising in your country?

The United States’ foreign policy in response to the uprising in Libya was cautious at the beginning, and lacked clarity of purpose. In other words, out of touch with reality on the ground. In my opinion, this is due in part to the limited information the administration had on Libya and its unorganized civil society, and the distorted views echoed by many pundits. Furthermore, I believe that U.S. policymakers in the administration as well as on Capitol Hill were caught off guard by the speed at which the Arab regimes were shaken and taken down — regimes that for years misled the Americans and squandered all financial logistical assistance provided to them.

In an ideal world, what would you like Obama to say on Thursday when addressing events in your country?

Unless the administration changes course and begins to engage with civil societies and view the Arab and Muslim world (people) as true partners in shaping the future of the world, American dominance and influence will diminish and diminish fast!

I strongly believe that the situation in Libya can and will be a catalyst for change in the entire region, just as we witnessed after the fall of apartheid in South Africa. After 42 years of oppression under Qaddafi, the freed people of Libya have proclaimed that the Feb. 17 revolution washes off all previous misdeeds so long as they do not have Libyan blood on their hands. Next, I say to President Obama: Do away with the policy of fear, turn the page and embrace the change coming from the Middle East! Finally, I call upon the Obama administration, Congress, and the State Department to make an unequivocal, formal statement recognizing the Libyan National Transitional Council as the de jure government of the people of Libya.


Nabeel Rajab

What did you learn about the United States’ foreign policy in their response to the uprising in your country?

We thought that our regime’s strong ties with the U.S. administration would strengthen our movement towards democracy and human rights, but unfortunately it turned out to have the opposite effect. It is the first time we feel this kind of oppression and pain caused by the U.S. decision to practice double standards in their foreign policy.

I am afraid that the cautious silence of the U.S. administration has caused them to lose the hearts and minds of the people in this part of the world. It has become evident today that, to the United States, democracy and human rights should only be applied to countries that are in conflict with the United States — but not with dictatorships it calls its allies.

It is time for the United States to realize the urgency of the situation before it completely loses momentum with the people here. Look at history: The United States did the same thing with Iran more than 30 years ago and this is the result. The United States should no longer build its long-lasting strategy depending on repressive regimes, but rather with the people before they lose both.

Saudi Arabia

Ibrahim Almugaiteeb

Director, Human Rights First Society of Saudi Arabia

What did you learn about the United States’ foreign policy in its response to events in your country?

The foreign policy of the United States has not been consistent with U.S. ideals.

I would like to see President Obama stand by the values and principles of the United States as the Founding Fathers viewed the issues of freedoms and democracy. Consequently the president should be calling for full respect of human rights and to freedoms for the Saudi people including, but not limited to, respect for the rule of law, freedom of association, gender equality, stopping all kinds of discrimination against religious minorities in Saudi Arabia, and, finally, for full freedom of expression including the right of the Saudi people to peaceful demonstrations.

Khalid Alnowaiser

Lawyer, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

What did you learn about U.S. foreign policy in its response to the uprisings in the Arab region?

Although some people in the region want the United States to fix the whole world’s problems (which is completely illogical and impossible), I believe the policy of the current U.S. administration is much more reasonable and pragmatic in its dealings with other countries than prior administrations, especially with regard to issues involving human rights.

In an ideal world, what would you like Obama to say on Thursday?

I would like President Obama to propose that the United States will take the lead to propose new legislation where international banks, whether in the West or elsewhere, are not allowed to accept money deposited by dictators in the region, and that this money will be considered no different than money laundering. If he would do so, it would send a strong message to regional dictatorships that corruption is no longer tolerated, which recent events in the Arab world proves to be the one of the reasons for political turmoil and ongoing human rights violations. My wish list is more extensive, but if President Obama would deliver just this one message, I am convinced that the whole region will understand that the U.S. is very serious and America will receive greater respect in the Arab world. Fighting corruption is no different than fighting terrorism, both of which require broad international support.


Hisham al-Miraat

Co-founder, Talk Morocco

What did you learn about the United States’ foreign policy in its response to the protests in Morocco?

The early U.S. diplomatic reactions to the Arab uprisings have also confirmed a constant in U.S. foreign policy — an enduring double standard that deals with countries on a case-by-case basis, in an approach guided in fact by a narrow interpretation of the odd notion of U.S. national interest.

While the U.S. foreign policy’s double standard is blatant in its dealings with governments like Bahrain or Yemen, it takes a much more pervasive and subtle form in semi-authoritarian countries like Morocco.

But the U.S. official policy puts it at odds with a young, freedom-aspiring generation of Moroccans, hundreds of thousands of whom are still taking to the streets, rejecting a reform process they deem inconsistent with the popular will, while facing an increasingly repressive security apparatus.

The Arab spring is changing the rules of the game. U.S. foreign policy is still based on a doctrine that reserves different sets of rules for different sets of countries. This double standard is insulting to the intelligence of the people of the region who can no longer tolerate that their freedoms be confiscated in the name of a superpower’s perceived interest.

In an ideal world, what would you like Obama to say on Thursday when addressing events in your country or the region?

In an ideal world, Mr. Obama would pledge that the United States will never interfere with the people’s aspirations for freedom and democracy, whether in the Arab region or any other part of the world. Mr. Obama would also be vowing to respect the sovereignty of free and democratic countries, whether political or economic. He would finally be declaring that the United States is withdrawing its support from every state that doesn’t respect human rights, and that would necessarily include Israel and all Arab states, minus Tunisia and Egypt.

Cameron Abadi is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @CameronAbadi

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