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Obama favors expediency over real change in Middle East

What Arab activists need from Washington is support for an independent judiciary and a free press.

Palestinians watch U.S. President Barack Obama's speech in Cairo, on the television in their house in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, June 4, 2009. (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters)

NEW YORK — People in the Middle East are used to soaring rhetoric that leads nowhere. They have a term for it: haki fadi — empty talk.

In his appeal to the Arab world, President Barack Obama is dangerously close to being full of haki fadi. As a powerful and eloquent orator, Obama has vowed to revamp America’s relationship with the Arab and Muslim worlds after the disastrous presidency of George W. Bush.

But as president, Obama has proven to be a hardheaded political realist who is reluctant to disrupt U.S. alliances with the region’s many authoritarian rulers. One of the biggest disappointments of his administration so far is its failure to advance democracy and human rights, especially in the Middle East.

Obama took up the lofty oratory of democracy promotion in his much-celebrated speech to the Muslim world last year. “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,” he said at Cairo University on June 4. “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.”

Yet Obama chose to deliver this message in Egypt, which is ruled by one of the most oppressive regimes in the Middle East. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has clung to power since 1981 under emergency laws that allow him to imprison thousands of dissidents without charge or trial, and to stifle peaceful political activity. As a strategic ally of the United States, Mubarak’s regime receives nearly $1.8 billion a year in U.S. assistance, making it the second-highest beneficiary of American foreign aid after Israel.

The Obama administration inherited a decades-old U.S. policy of supporting autocratic regimes — like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan — in exchange for political acquiescence. Virtually all governments in the Middle East rely on vast secret police agencies to keep them in power, using the “war on terror” as a cover to silence any opposition. These regimes put on a veneer of “stability” for the West, but in reality their political systems are weak, corrupt and calcified.

In June 2005, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the world that America would no longer support repressive regimes in the name of political expediency. “For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region — and we achieved neither,” she said at the American University in Cairo. “Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.”