President Obama’s address at the UN General Assembly must have been a welcome relief to Egypt’s de facto rulers. Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy described it as “positive” and reflective of “an objective treatment of the situation in Egypt”. With an almost unrestrained euphoria the junta which toppled the country’s first elected civilian government regarded the speech as a ringing endorsement of their repressive policies.
After taking his country to the brink of yet another major military intervention in the Middle East, much of Obama’s speech was directed at the region. Despite claims that south-east Asia had become the predominant focus of US foreign policy the address confirmed the enduring strategic importance of the Middle East.
No one expected Obama to demonstrate any creative thinking on the region’s long-festering conflict in Palestine. Predictably, after the tiresome ritual of reaffirming America’s unfailing commitment to Israel’s security, the president offered equally customary platitudes about the Palestinian people’s right also to live in security and dignity.
What was of major concern was the way that he addressed the on-going crisis in Egypt.
In some respects it was not what was said in the speech as much as what was not said that is the issue. When Mr Obama highlighted, quite rightly, Syria, where “peaceful protests against an authoritarian regime were met with repression and slaughter”, he could have mentioned the Egyptian coup-led government’s murderous response to peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations, but he didn’t; he chickened out. It is as if the massacres in Rabaa Al Adawiyya and Al Nahda Squares had never happened.
“The United States will maintain a constructive relationship with the interim government that promotes core interests like the Camp David Accords and counter-terrorism,” he said. Earlier on in the speech he reminded the gathering of world leaders that, “The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure these core interests in the region.” Now we know who is directing his foreign policy.
Let’s be honest; this was a green light to the Egyptian generals that they have a mandate from America to govern however they like, as long as it is done in the name of fighting terrorism and protecting the Camp David Accords, for Israel’s benefit, of course.
“Our approach to Egypt reflects a larger point,” confirmed Obama. “The United States will at times work with governments that do not meet the highest international expectations, but who work with us on our core interests.”
Then came the Orwellian double-speak which laid bare his hypocrisy for all to see: “Nevertheless, we will not stop asserting principles that are consistent with our ideals, whether that means opposing the use of violence as a means of suppressing dissent, or supporting the principles embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
The message was all too clear: as far as Egypt is concerned, America’s “core interests” take precedence over the basic principles of international law. At least he was honest enough to put it in that order. Nobody can now say that America’s claim to uphold universal values is a myth; it will always be conditional.
Obama admitted that the interim authorities in Cairo have “made decisions inconsistent with inclusive democracy – through an emergency law, and restrictions on the press, civil society and oppositional parties.” Here’s the but… “Mohamed Morsi was democratically elected but proved unwilling or unable to govern in a way that was fully inclusive.” His speech could have been written by or for General Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi.
If the US president had an issue with that shortcoming, then what about the unelected generals; have they shown a willingness to govern in a way that is fully inclusive? The answer is obvious: no, they haven’t. What the generals now governing Egypt have done is arrest more than 15,000 Egyptian citizens and kill thousands more; declare the Muslim Brotherhood to be illegal; and close down scores of media outlets. If this is Obama’s idea of inclusiveness then God help those who are excluded.
By bending over backwards to accommodate the Egyptian military junta, Obama has reinforced the popular perception across the region that US foreign policy is contradictory at best and duplicitous at worst.
There is serious discomfort with the Obama approach to the Egyptian question. Senior Congressmen like John McCain and Lindsey Graham have made clear their revulsion with the military subversion of Egypt’s democratic process.
The picture emerging from Washington is alarming, though not entirely surprising as Obama approaches the middle of his second term. According to a USA Today/Gallop poll, in 2009, 66 per cent of Americans acknowledged that Obama was making more effort to foster bipartisan policies in Washington than his Republican counterparts.
Today, things have changed markedly and there are concerns not least among many career military officers who now believe the incumbent Obama administration has monopolised decision-making within a tight circle dominated by civilians. Not only do they engage in endless debates but worse still they seem to be unwilling or unable to formulate decisive policies.
Back in Egypt, Obama still has many questions to answer. He reassured the UN General Assembly in New York that the US would continue to engage with and provide leadership in the Middle East. “Sovereignty,” he insisted, “cannot be a shield for tyrants to commit one murder.” Or, we might add, be an excuse for the international community to turn a blind eye.
Will he now stop the murder carried out with his blessing and halt Egypt’s dangerous slide toward absolute tyranny? It’s definitely time for Obama to put fine words into action and let human rights and international law trump injustices and those pernicious “interests” that he holds so dear.