While US President Barack Obama won the American presidential election on a platform of hope and change, it was more of the same when it came to his administration’s dealings with the Egyptian regime.
In fact, the change that Obama introduced vis-à-vis the Egyptian regime was considered by opposition groups and human rights activists as change for the worse.
Tensions had been prevalent between the previous Bush administration and the Egyptian one, to the extent that President Hosni Mubarak had halted his annual US visit through the last five years of the Bush administration’s tenure, objecting to their criticism of the Egyptian regime for issues including Egypt’s human rights record, the laxness of security on the border with Gaza and the imprisonment of 2005 presidential candidate Ayman Nour.
Obama had started on the right track verbally when during his inauguration speech in Nov. 2008 he said, “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.
However, Egyptian opposition activists wanted more than words from the new US president. Gamila Ismail, then wife of Nour, who was still incarcerated at the time, told Daily News Egypt after the inauguration, “I hope these are not just words and are transformed into genuine actions and policies.
“We don’t ask from American administrations or their representatives anything except to stop supporting dictatorships in the region and to be more interested in their principles rather than their interests, she added.
“This has to be reflected in their public and private support of them, and meeting and receiving them, Ismail continued, “He [Obama] really has to stop backing dictatorships in the region and Egypt and shows he cares more about the people than the rulers. Receiving dictators in the White House after years of not receiving them will be interpreted as that it was all just talk.
Egypt made the first overture by releasing Nour four months early in February on health grounds. It was perceived by analysts to be a peace offering to the new US administration.
It seemed to have paid off when it was announced that Obama would make a speech addressing the Muslim world from Cairo. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs defended the choice by saying Egypt was “a country that in many ways represents the heart of the Arab world.
Editor-in-chief of the state-run Al-Ahram newspaper Osama Saraya wrote in an editorial that Obama’s choice of Egypt was an “admission of the truth and depth of [Egypt’s] wise political vision in solving the problems between East and West.
Egyptian opposition saw the choice of venue as tacit approval of the Egyptian regime. Coordinator of the Kefaya Movement for Change Abdel-Halim Qandil told Daily News Egypt after the announcement, “The regime is promoting Obama’s visit as recognition of it, and that is partly true, but regarding what? Regarding US policy, because the regime is important for American interests in the region. The regime views American acceptance as paramount, as it is undemocratically elected, so it has replaced the electorate with the approval of Tel Aviv and Washington.
“As for the American administration, we must make a distinction that Obama might be good for the Americans, but no one said he is good for us. So it is not a surprise and no one from the opposition ever said that change in Egypt will come from the office of the American president; in fact the US is an obstacle to change in Egypt and the Arab world, Qandil added.
Prior to the speech, Egyptian groups in the US urged Obama in a letter “to bring up issues pertaining to reform and the cancellation of the emergency law and all laws restricting freedoms [in Egypt] and call for “the release of political prisoners and the creation of a true democracy based on the allowance of general and religious freedom.
On June 4, Obama made his much-anticipated speech at Cairo University and on the issue of democracy said, “No system of government can or should be imposed on one nation by any other, but also said the US would support ideals such as freedom of expression and transparency of rule.
“You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party, he said.
The resumption of warmer ties between Egypt and the US seemed complete when it was announced that President Hosni Mubarak would visit the US in May after a five-year hiatus.
However, the untimely death of his grandson meant the visit was postponed.
Mubarak finally made his way to the US in August. He said at the time, “Relations between us and the United States are very good relations and strategic relations. And despite some of the hurdles that we had with previous administrations, this did not change the nature of our bilateral relations.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs responded to criticism that relations had warmed again with a regime known for its poor record in human rights and democratic reform, insisting that such issues were discussed between Mubarak and Obama.
“I would not agree with the premise that we have somehow swept under the rug, in either this relationship or in relationships with other countries, the notion of human rights or greater democracy in the world, he said.