Obama’s speech to the Arab world last week was marked by an interesting paradox. On the one hand, the tone and content of the speech were predictable, but on the other hand it raised more questions than answers for its Arab audience.
Obama’s speech delivered no surprises. US presidents are always careful not to provoke the Israel lobby and campaign donors, especially in the lead-up to an election. At the same time, Obama was compelled to defend his track record against criticism from his Republican detractors who attacked his Cairo speech in 2009 for being too gentle on the Arabs and are now critical of his stance toward the Arab revolutions.
For its Arab audience, however, the speech revealed important trends in the US position toward Arab revolutions. Obama stated his clear support for the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions. But his stance towards other Arab revolts against US allies mirrored his position on Egypt during the days of the revolution. Obama called on the Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to deliver on his promise to “transfer power,” much like his plea to deposed President Hosni Mubarak in early February for an “orderly transfer of power.” Obama condemned the use of violence in Bahrain, like he did the crackdown by Egyptian security forces during the uprising. He called on the Bahraini government to begin a “dialogue with the opposition,” much like he demanded of the Egyptian government.
The US position towards its embattled allies in the region is consistent: It only supports revolutions after they succeed, not during phases of intense struggle. This raises questions about how much Washington really supports democracy in the region.
With regards to post-revolution Egypt, Obama delivered several messages. He pledged loan guarantees through the World Bank and IMF of up to USD 1 billion to support the Egyptian economy. He also asserted the need to liberalize trade and called on Congress to relieve USD 1 billion in debt owed by Egypt.
This aid package bears a striking resemblance to pre-revolutionary economic practices. By “debt relief” Obama meant that some of Egypt’s debts would be relieved in return for projects and programs that are partly chosen and approved by the United States (loan guarantees are conditional by definition). Moreover, the package would likely support the neo-liberal policies of the Mubarak regime, which had a devastating impact on the Egyptian economy. World Bank and IMF programs often come as standard prescription, regardless of the patient’s particular illness.
But the blame falls not on Obama for adopting this approach but on the Egyptian Ministry of Finance that continues to follow the same disastrous policies of its predecessor. The finance ministry asked for a loan from the World Bank, a signal that little has changed in the management of the Egyptian economy. The current caretaker government should not be locking Egypt into commitments that will shackle our future elected leaders.
There are however signs the United States is reconsidering some of its policies — a cause for some optimism. Obama implicitly acknowledged that the United States was mistaken to communicate only with the Egyptian elite in Egypt, while neglecting the masses. He announced that the United States will communicate from now on with “those who will shape the future” and who believe in “real” democracy. What will this communication look like exactly is yet to be seen.
In the end, the question is not what the United States seeks to achieve in Egypt, but what Egyptians want. Egypt must have an independent vision for the future that spells out what we want from the United States and what we can and cannot accept, especially after years of being ruled by a regime that was excessively subservient to America.