Obama's Message In Egypt

The venue from which President Obama addresses Muslim communities is integral to the substance of his message. While the president and his team are to be commended for extending a hand of cooperation and understanding to the world's Muslims, Egypt's democrats cannot help being concerned over the decision to deliver the address from Egypt on June 4. Voices for a Democratic Egypt and supporters of democracy in general hope that Obama will choose a neutral venue within Egypt and make clear his support for the Egyptian people in their aspirations for basic rights and freedom.

Egypt is a weighty Arab and Muslim-majority country, and undoubtedly its status as the trendsetting heart of the Arab and Muslim worlds informed Obama's choice of venue for a speech that is likely to be a historical mark in his presidency. In making this choice, however, Obama must contend with some basic facts, such as the serious democracy and human rights deficits that for years have marred the Egyptian political landscape. For the past 28 years, Egypt has been ruled with emergency laws, under which the people's basic freedoms have been suspended. Human rights, religious freedoms and the rule of law itself have all significantly deteriorated under President Hosni Mubarak's continued state of emergency. By conservative estimates, Egyptian prisons illegally house at least 8,000 nonviolent political prisoners. The regime has long ignored its people's peaceful demands for democratic reform and brutally silenced voices of dissent. While Mubarak is perceived abroad as playing a key role in regional stability, the corruption of his regime and its continued repression of the Egyptian people are undermining that very stability and security.

This state of affairs and the ongoing persecution of reformers and activists warrant global attention. In Egypt, the announcement of Obama's visit has been interpreted as tacit American endorsement of the regime. Early this month, the speaker of the Egyptian Parliament, emboldened by this perceived approval, requested that the Foreign Relations Committee convene a special session to discuss bringing new charges against democracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim over a Dec. 20 op-ed column in The Post. Ibrahim, who is living abroad, already faces more than 20 politically motivated court cases, all brought by ruling-party affiliates. In August, he was convicted and sentenced in absentia to two years for "defaming Egypt's reputation." In his December Post column, "An Outreach to Muslims," Ibrahim suggested that good governance should be among the criteria for choosing the place from where Obama would address Muslim communities and that such a standard would preclude Egypt and Syria. In retaliation for this expression of opinion, members of the regime who serve in Parliament have threatened new charges of treason.

In a surprising twist, the head of the committee, Mostafa El Fiky, walked into the special session 90 minutes into its deliberations and announced that the case had been "mistakenly" placed on the agenda, prompting some in Parliament to speculate that intense backroom negotiations with the Obama administration are occurring ahead of the president's arrival in Egypt. Supporters of democracy hope so but assert that such arbitrary, case-by-case interventions are not enough.

Next month, hundreds of millions of Muslims will look to President Obama with hopeful anticipation. At this critical moment, Voices for a Democratic Egypt calls on the president to affirm his intent to uphold and support the values of human dignity and freedom not just in the United States but worldwide, starting with Egypt as a model for Arab and Muslim countries. We urge the president to make clear his understanding that endorsements of the region's dictators and their repressive policies against their people are incongruent with his own promises of "change" and "hope." We urge the Obama administration to recognize that supporting the efforts of democrats and human rights activists should not be viewed as a form of punishment in U.S. relations with Egypt. Rather, it is an essential element of a comprehensive relationship; supporting a pluralistic and democratic Egypt will result in a strong and reliable partner in promoting regional peace and stability.

Egyptians seek to live in a democratic nation that respects human rights and is guided by the rule of law. A government committed to such goals would have swift, positive and enduring ramifications for the entire Middle East. Obama has an opportunity to send a clear signal to Egypt that his choice of venue is about the Egyptian people's struggles and achievements, not those of the regime. In Egypt, Obama should seek out and meet with independent civil society actors. He should opt for a neutral location such as the New Bibliotheca Alexandrina or an academic institution, and speak truth to power as he did in his historic campaign. We hope also that he will employ inclusive language that recognizes the integration of Muslims in the United States and beyond. Finally, we urge the president to affirm that forging alliances with the peoples of the Middle East, rather than with those who oppress them, is the key to eliminating extremism and bringing about lasting regional and international stability and security.

Dina Guirguis, executive director of Voices for a Democratic Egypt, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting democracy, human rights and the rule of law.