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The Lessons of Obama's Cairo Speech

Wednesday, February 02, 2011 - 10:38 AM

President Obama looked out at a historic public gathering in the streets of Cairo and declared his unequivocal support for the principles of democracy in a message that echoed both at home and abroad: 

There are some who advocate for democracy only when they are out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others. No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: 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.

No, that was not our president’s reaction when the uprising began last week as he carefully balanced his support of President Hosni Mubarak with his calls for peaceful restraint by the Egyptian government.  Nor was it in his remarks on Tuesday, as his positioning shifted, his urgency increased, and called for change to “begin now” in response to Mubarak’s announcement that he will not seek reelection.

The powerful call for democracy in Arab countries and throughout the world came from President Obama’s Cairo speech on June 4, 2009, as he sought to inspire a new relationship between the United States and the Arab world, built upon an understanding of the connectedness — not contradictions — between American and Muslim values.

The administration’s reaction to the events in Egypt was cautious over the first few days. There was a responsibility to deal diplomatically with a government that has been the second largest recipient of American foreign aid. But more than protecting Mubarak, the Obama team needed to protect the process unfolding in the streets of Cairo.  America has a long, and unfortunate history, of being too hands-on in the regime changes of countries around the world — often with unintended consequences. Whatever results in Egypt will be stronger because it is authentically Egyptian, and not the result of the machinations of powers a world away. This transformation is not “Made in the USA” – it is of, by and for the people of Egypt.

The same principle should hold true in Yemen, where Ali Abdullah Saleh has announced he too will stand down for a successor at the next election. It’s the case in Jordan, where the king dismissed the government to rebuild a new cabinet in advance of intensifying protest. And if the Israeli-Palestinian process finds new urgency, as Thomas Friedman urges in his column in the Times, that process too should bear the authenticity of being guided by Israelis and Palestinians at their insistence, not simply at ours.  Benjamin Barber argues that no two Middle Eastern countries will respond quite the same way to the shock of these events, but we can be consistent in our response to all the scenarios.

You’ve heard the phrase, “lead, follow or get out of the way.” In these cases, we can do a little of each: leading in declaring unwavering support for democratic principles, following the events with support for proper process and the safety of local populations, and making sure we play no role in obstructing the astonishing show of popular expression or the subsequent march toward new, fair elections — whether in Egypt and or wherever people rise up next.

While our leaders may be wise not to appear as ringleaders for the revolution, we also shouldn’t be the defenders of the status quo. We shouldn’t be scared of democracy.  We cannot pick the outcomes or know for sure what leadership will follow Mubarak — as soon as next week, or as late as the next election. But as the president’s advisors and speechwriters look for the right position in these historical moments, they should look back to that speech the president already gave, a set of remarks that broke from the patterns of his predecessor and inspired Americans to believe there could be a new approach to international affairs:

So let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other…That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.

The Muslim world heard those words back in June, 2009. Let’s make sure they believe that’s where America stands in this fiery winter of 2011.

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