You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Was Cairo The Right Place To Speak?

Larry Diamond is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford.

Extremists have raced to dismiss Obama's speech at Cairo University today as more of the same from what they see as an evil, imperial United States. But the repeated and fulsome applause that Obama received from his predominantly young Egyptian audience, as well as early Internet reactions, indicate many Muslims have a very different view. They appreciate that Obama himself represents a new beginning for America. And they welcome his sincere and carefully crafted message of respect for Islam and appeal for tolerance, mutual understanding, and common purpose.

For the speech to have any lasting positive effect, though, Muslims around the world have emphasized, and the president is keenly aware, that words must be followed by actions. Thus, the success of the speech can only be gauged against President Obama's ability to deliver tangible progress on the wide-ranging policy agenda he addressed.

At the top of that agenda, for many Arab Muslims in particular is a fair resolution, of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, based on the two-state solution that Obama emphatically reaffirmed. His personal commitment to that peace process, and his appeals for the two parties to meet their mutual responsibilities will be well received by Muslims generally. But that warm (or cautiously hopeful) reception will last only if there is real progress on the ground.

Obama's audience in Egypt, and throughout the Arab world, was waiting keenly to hear what he would say about democracy. The Cairo University audience applauded at his first mention of the word. And it was when he concluded these four paragraphs of his speech, with a message seemingly directed at Arab autocrats--"You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities..."--that an audience member erupted with "Barack Obama, we love you!"

Advocates of a sustained American commitment to human rights and democracy in the region are no doubt pleased (and relieved) that Obama made democracy one of the seven issues he addressed. In many respects, the president successfully navigated the difficult competing imperatives of renouncing the unsustainable arrogance and assertiveness of the previous administration without abandoning its commitment to support human rights and peaceful democratic change. Muslim democrats will take heart in his embrace of freedom of speech, the rule of law, government transparency, and political participation as basic human rights, not just American ideas. They will also find some reassurance in his vow to "welcome all elected, peaceful governments--provided they govern with respect for all their people."

But much remains unsaid, or disappointingly vague. Ayman Nour, the Egyptian democracy advocate who was imprisoned for three years for having the temerity to challenge Egypt's modern pharaoh, Hosni Mubarak, in the 2005 presidential election, remarked after the speech: "It was actually better than we expected, but not as good as we hoped. ... His stance on democracy was very general, a bit weak, we hoped for more detail."

Democrats in Egypt and other Arab (and Muslim-majority) countries wanted to hear more. They wanted some specific criticism of authoritarian practices. They wanted Obama to call for the release of political prisoners and an end to the persecution (and torture) of regime opponents. Without violating his vow not to "impose" a system of government on another nation, Obama could much more clearly have aligned himself with Egyptians who are seeking such basic human rights as freedom of speech, freedom to organize, and an independent judiciary. These are the critical foundations for democratic progress, however gradual, throughout the region.

In a pre-trip interview, President Obama stressed that he did not want to be seen as "lecturing" other governments, or characterizing their leaderships. Perhaps he appealed in private to President Mubarak for progress on human rights. But if he was not prepared more explicitly to speak truth to power in this heart of the Arab world, it is reasonable to ask whether Cairo was the right place to give the speech.

--Larry Diamond