A Record That Can't Be Ignored

All eyes and ears will be on President Obama on June 4, when he delivers his first address from an Arab country. Will he focus on preserving a close relationship with Arab governments, whatever their shortcomings, or will he gear his message to Arab citizens, suppressed for decades by authoritarian leaders? While the new administration has signaled that promoting respect for human rights will not feature publicly in its bilateral relationships, ignoring Egypt's abysmal record will further stall reforms in that country and further undermine US standing in the region.

In many ways Egypt is a natural choice for this speech: it remains the cultural capital of the Arab world, however faded its political importance. It also has the closest relationship with the United States among Arab countries, as the second-largest recipient of American economic and military largesse, to the tune of $1.6 billion dollars annually (only Israel receives more). Egypt has been dutiful in its commitments -- keeping the peace with Israel, preventing African migrants from crossing into Israel, and keeping Gaza's border at Rafah sealed (if less successful at blocking smuggling tunnels). It has cooperated closely with US counter-terrorism policies, even profoundly unlawful ones such as torturing suspects sent to Egypt on Washington's behalf. And when Washington wants something from the Arabs, it typically turns to Egypt to broker the deal. A decent return for the U.S. investment, some foreign policy wonks say.

But then there is the reality of the Egyptian government's heavy-handed relationship with its own citizens, whom it has ruled by "emergency laws" for most of the past 42 years. While the "war-time" justification for the suspension of rights and freedoms under these emergency laws has long ended (Egypt signed its peace treaty with Israel in 1979), their convenience as a tool for controlling and intimidating government opponents, including non-violent ones, has not. The government continues to restrict Egyptians' speech and their press freedom, jailing critical journalists, writers and bloggers alike. It has used the emergency laws to detain thousands, mostly Islamists, without charge, some of them for decades.

Competition for political power is strictly limited, with the National Democratic Party dominating a rubber-stamp parliament following elections that don't come close to meeting the fairness test. The security establishment is overstuffed with agents who apparently have plenty of time on their hands to monitor and menace ordinary citizens engaged in "suspicious" activities, like advocating for housing rights, or for medical assistance for those who undergo the torture that is pervasive in police stations. Courts that issue judgments contrary to the government's wishes are routinely ignored. Egypt may be a more tolerant, moderate country, with some modicum of political dissent, compared with some other countries in the region. But freedom has a very short leash in Egypt.

Washington's support for this repressive government has been a cause for anger and resentment in Egypt and the region. Many see the United States as complicit in Egyptian government abuses, effectively aiding and abetting routine mistreatment of ordinary people. Whatever the benefits of this alliance for the U.S., this cost must be factored in.

While the Bush administration's failures in the region were legion and catastrophic, it did earn credit for its willingness, however briefly, to insist publicly on the need for reforms in Egypt. The public pressure helped push the government to allow demonstrations criticizing the government, tolerate increased press freedom, and even allow a contested presidential election in 2005. But following large gains by the Muslim Brotherhood in parliamentary elections later that year, the Bush administration abandoned this agenda. Egypt returned to its nasty ways, jailing the opposition presidential candidate Ayman Nour, cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood and jailing journalists. But Bush -- and the Egyptian government -- proved that public diplomacy could help achieve practical, important reforms.

Today, there's debate in the Obama administration about the appropriate role of human rights advocacy in its bilateral relations with other countries. America's standing to raise issues of human rights, in the wake of the Iraq war, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, is significantly impaired. But where the US has special relationships with governments, tied by billions in military and financial aid and close security and political cooperation, it doesn't have the luxury of ignoring its partner's human rights record, both as a matter of principle and of self-interest. There's much to welcome in America's newfound humility and willingness to listen. But it's no cover for the need for straight talk with the rulers in Cairo.