By Rannie Amiri
The White House announced Friday that President Obama will deliver his much anticipated (and promised) address to the Arab and Muslim worlds on June 4 from Egypt.
Is Egypt the best venue for a speech of this significance though?
In defending the selection, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said, “It is a country that in many ways represents the heart of the Arab world.”
With a population of 80 million, it certainly is the largest, and no one would dispute its cultural and historical standing. But the question remains: is it the wisest choice for giving a speech that, according to Gibbs, “ … will be about America’s relations with the Muslim world”?
Much of the debate prior to choosing Egypt likely revolved around its atrocious human rights record under President Hosni Mubarak. Since the assassination of his predecessor President Anwar Sadat in 1981, Mubarak has ruled under the provisions of Emergency Law. These statutes allow for the indefinite detention of any citizen without charge or trial, prohibit public gatherings and demonstrations, permit media censorship, and place numerous restrictions on freedom of expression.
Emergency Law has been used by the Mubarak regime, of course, to suppress any political opposition or dissent, whether from organized groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, or from individuals like human rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, presidential electoral challenger Ayman Nour, or pro-Palestinian bloggers (including Philip Rizk and Diaa Eddin Gad among others).
Thousands of Egyptians have been detained as a result. Amnesty International’s 2008 Report on Egypt stated:
“Around 18,000 administrative detainees – people held by order of the Interior Ministry – remained in prison in degrading and inhumane conditions. Some had been held for more than a decade, including many whose release had been repeatedly ordered by courts.”
Egypt’s human rights record is no less deplorable than Israel’s however, and nary a word of protest is heard when any U.S. political figure visits that country. What should have given Obama pause is not Egypt’s lack of civil liberties, but rather Mubarak’s utter complicity in the 2008-2009 Israeli assault on Gaza and how this will be perceived in the Muslim world.
Mubarak’s decision to keep the critical Rafah border crossing with Gaza closed, thus preventing the vital transfer of humanitarian supplies into the territory and the sick, wounded and starving out, was widely condemned throughout the Middle East (if not by the pro-U.S. governments in the region).
The impact of the cruel, callous and inhumane posture adopted by the Egyptian government in abetting the 18-month siege and subsequent 22-day offensive on the Arab psyche should not be discounted. This war led to more than 1,400 deaths – the vast majority of whom were civilians and 300 of them children – and 5,300 injured. It saw the use of white phosphorus against the innocent, wanton destruction of civilian infrastructure and deliberate targeting of United Nations relief facilities.
It is therefore reasonable to ask if Obama’s discourse outlining a new U.S. approach to the Muslim world is best presented from Egypt.
It is true that Mubarak’s legitimacy as ruler has been severely compromised as a result of the war. We are seeing evidence of this as he lashes out against Hezbollah, Iran, Syria and Qatar in a desperate attempt to restore it. Yet, bolstering and rewarding Mubarak by giving a keynote and landmark address in his country – no matter how well-intentioned – may be misplaced.
“The scope of the speech, the desire for the president to speak, is bigger than where the speech was going to be given or who’s the leadership of the country where the speech is going to be given,” said Gibbs.
Nevertheless, the image of Mubarak hosting Obama will be a telling one.
Obama might have instead chosen the most populous Muslim country and one where he spent a portion of his childhood – Indonesia. Or he might have expanded his remarks during his recent visit to Turkey. During it, he earned praise for such statements such as: “The United States is not at war with Islam and will never be” and, “The United States has been enriched by Muslim Americans. Many other Americans have Muslims in their family, or have lived in a Muslim-majority country. I know, because I am one of them.”
That being said, what about Dearborn, Michigan, home to the largest mosque in North America? The American Muslim community is unique in being one of the most diverse in the world, but one that has been subjected to an unfortunate backlash since 9/11. During the presidential campaign, Obama shunned American Muslims, failing to even visit a mosque. Although an address to this community was not one he promised, it is surely one deserved.
Whether the same can be said of Obama’s upcoming host country seems far less certain.
– Rannie Amiri is an independent Middle East commentator. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.