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Obama's Mideast Rights Record Comes Under Fire

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak greets U.S. President Barack Obama in Cairo last June.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak greets U.S. President Barack Obama in Cairo last June.

Michael Posner, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, is less than sanguine about the success of the Obama administration's human rights policy in the Middle East. "I can't say we're succeeding everywhere, but we're certainly trying," Posner said at an event in Washington last week marking the first anniversary of President Barack Obama's widely acclaimed Cairo speech.

At the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Posner fended off criticism from regional activists that the administration's policies have failed to match its rhetoric. "[There are] many of us in the administration who are pushing for human rights, democracy, and civil society development," Posner said.

Others are more critical. "The friends of human rights in the administration are a minority," says Bahey al-Din Hassan, the director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. In remarks at the Carnegie Endowment, Hassan claimed that "from June 2009 through June 2010, the region has witnessed an intensification of repression," pointing to anti-Shi'a policies in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, sectarian violence against Egyptian Copts, and new and dangerous threats to human rights defenders in the region.

Hassan's observations are backed by reports from other observers. In March, Human Rights Watch noted that the detention and harassment of civil society workers and journalists proceeds apace in Syria, even as diplomats from the United States and Europe have "failed to press the issue." Civil rights in Egypt continue to slide, and international organizations have decried the imprisonment of independent bloggers, along with allegations of widespread fraud and interference in elections in early June. Although Vice President Joe Biden has publicly voiced concerns with Egypt's government, many in Egypt are unconvinced of the Obama administration's interest in human rights promotion.

Emad Gad, an analyst at the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, was recently quoted in the "Christian Science Monitor" as saying, "I think the current American government doesn't care about the human rights issue and religious freedom in Egypt."

Egyptian dissident Saad Ibrahim put it even more bluntly in a recent op-ed in "The Washington Post," headlined "Obama is too friendly with tyrants."

Indeed, there is some question as to whether Obama's June 2009 speech in Cairo was meant to promote human rights in the Middle East at all. Michael Crowley of "Time," looking back at the Cairo address, noted that "Obama offered only the mildest nods to human rights and democracy - pressing questions in the despotic Middle East, especially, but ones that his realist foreign policy has largely glossed over in the name of stability, perhaps at a strategic cost."

In Washington last week, Hassan said that Egyptians interpreted Obama's Cairo address in two broad ways: first, "that it was a message of engagement with Arab peoples and Arab governments;" and second, "that it was a message of engagement with Arab governments and disengagement with Arab peoples." Hassan suggested that the latter interpretation was ascendant in the Arab world, and pointed to three specific administration policies indicative of a shift in U.S. priorities away from human rights: U.S. support for the Yemeni government, "a bloody, corrupt regime"; U.S. endorsement of the results of Sudan's 2010 general election, which Hassan called "rigged"; and the U.S. government's decision to cut off aid to Egyptian civil society organizations not registered or approved by the Egyptian government -- tantamount, Hassan believes, to "providing direct support for the enemy."

Hassan's premise that the U.S. government must choose between supporting the Middle East's rulers or supporting its populations was sharply challenged as a "false choice" by Tamara Cofman Wittes, a deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. Wittes argued that changing the oppressive behavior of undemocratic regimes required "direct engagement" with those regimes, and claimed that the United States regularly includes human rights concerns in its discussions with governments in the Middle East. She also pointed to the administration's record in Yemen and Egypt in particular, claiming that the United States has "sustained, and even increased its support for Egyptian civil society institutions," and that the United States has helped to foster a "diverse, vibrant civil society in Yemen."

But Amal Basha, the Yemen-based chair of the Sisters Arab Forum, painted a very different picture of the situation on the ground in her native country. "Everything in Yemen is deteriorating...except for the security apparatus." She criticized a proliferation of security agencies in Yemen, and linked that complaint to a critique of Washington's policy in Yemen, saying that U.S. strategy in Yemen remains too focused on military operations.

Citing two U.S. cruise-missile strikes and coordinated military raids that allegedly killed dozens of civilians in December, Basha said that she and her colleagues were outraged "when we read in the newspaper that Obama made a call to the Yemeni president to 'congratulate' him on the operation." Basha also noted a more recent cruise-missile strike on a Yemeni village in June, which "The Independent" of London said killed 41 civilians, including 21 children and 14 women. Basha suggested that the U.S. and Yemeni governments' focus on antiterror measures has compromised the United States' overall nation- and state-building objectives in Yemen, and harmed U.S. credibility in the Arab world generally.

Assistant Secretary Posner acknowledged the concerns put forward by Hassan and Basha. "We need to have a unified policy in government," he said. "It's taken a while to get that kind of thinking in a global sense."

-- Charles Dameron

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