Joyce Karam
Dar Al-Hayat (Opinion)
May 12, 2009 - 12:00am

President Barack Obama's speech to the Muslim world from Egypt on June 4, and the upcoming visit of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to Washington signal a desire from both leaders to strengthen relations and increase cooperation on regional issues.

Egypt was announced as the location for President Obama high profile speech on Friday from a short list including Indonesia and Afghanistan. White House Spokesperson Robert Gibbs defended the selection, maintaining that Egypt is at "the heart of the Arab world" and emphasizing the need for "shared and common progress to strengthen that relationship". The Egyptian leadership on its part welcomed the news especially that it comes days after President Husni Mubarak two day visit to Washington on May 25th, where he is scheduled to meet Obama and high level officials. The trip is Mubarak's first to the United States since 2004, where he last met former President George W Bush in Crawford, Texas.

The diplomatic traffic between the two countries indicates, according to Michele Dunne a senior associate at the Carnegie endowment for International Peace, a "desire in the Obama administration to improve relations with Egypt" and at the same time to "acknowledge the importance of Egypt" on the regional and strategic levels. Dunne points out to Cairo's comeback as the center of regional diplomacy since the Gaza war last year, and its continuing mediation of the Hamas-Fatah talks. She adds that the speech makes Egypt not only at the center of the Arab world but the Muslim world too". On the American side, the choice highlights "the Obama administration great level of confidence and readiness" to address people worldwide, nonetheless "in the most populated country of the Arab World". Poll numbers ( McClatchy/Ipsos Poll) show Obama enjoying popular numbers in Arab countries unlike many of his predecessors.

The speech still presents a "challenge" to the new President according to Dunne who had lived previously in Cairo and is fluent in Arabic. The expert points out to the Egyptian government concern on what will Obama say on human rights issues. Dunne recalls the strained relationship between Washington and Cairo under Bush over the complex political developments inside Egypt. She explains that "it is now very difficult if not impossible for Obama to make a speech that doesn't touch on the domestic political situation in Egypt" mainly issues related to democratization and human rights. The White House announcement brought back images of another high level speech delivered by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the American University of Cairo in June 2005, where she asked Egyptians "to look to the future, to a future that Egyptians can lead and define" adding that "throughout the Middle East, the fear of free choices can no longer justify the denial of liberty."

The tone, however, is expected to be different with President Obama. Dunne stresses that the Obama administration "has already taken a less aggressive approach on human rights", and that "there is no clear policy towards human rights and democracy and its role in the US foreign policy." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was criticized for her remarks ahead of visiting China last February, stating that human rights issues there "can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis". The challenge for the Obama administration according to Dunne, is "to find a policy on these issues (human rights and democratization) that is receptive" given the range of problems that the US faces in the Middle East, and where Egypt's cooperation is crucial especially on the Peace Process and Iran to achieve progress and regional stability .

President Mubarak will emphasize regional issues during his upcoming visit. Dunne points out to the "disappointment and frustration at the Egyptian side over the direction that the US policy had taken in the Bush years" and primarily lack of serious engagement on the Peace Process, and the war in Iraq which Mubarak opposed. Dunne adds that "there was this sense that the alliance with the US has become increasingly uncomfortable for Egypt". Something that Mubarak is looking to overcome in his visit, pinning the hopes on the Obama administration promise of vigorous engagement on regional peace and security.


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