As a former Ambassador myself, I can tell you that once a vast unhappy crowd starts carrying pictures of your country’s ambassador and calls for her/him to pack up and go home, things have gone badly wrong in the bilateral relationship. Thus with US Ambassador Anne Patterson in Cairo. She is seen by large parts of Egyptian society as a symbol of incompetent US meddling. She is denounced for getting too ‘involved’ in Egyptians’ affairs or for backing the wrong side, or both.
How did US diplomacy in the Middle East reach this sorry pass? I can’t help feeling that the famous speech delivered by President Obama in Cairo in June 2009 gives us some clues.
The first thing to note is that it was amazingly long. It weighed in at over 6050 words. Too many.
The second is that the speech was delivered not long after President Obama assumed office. He was at the height of his popular appeal as the Anti-Bush. By making this major speech in Egypt, the largest country in the so-called Arab world, he wanted to signal a clean break with nasty right-wing American policies (Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran) and proclaim a new start based not on military might and intervention but rather on ‘dialogue’. Not necessarily a bad idea. But it needed doing guilefully. Dialogue is often good. The problem is what to say, and what the other side hears. And then what to do if the other side isn’t really listening, or doesn’t like what it hears.
The Cairo speech opened on a weird note:
I’m also proud to carry with me the goodwill of the American people, and a greeting of peace from Muslim communities in my country: Assalaamu alaykum (Applause.)
What? Why is the President of the United States carrying a greeting of peace from US Muslim communities? What about Christian or Buddhist or indeed atheist communities? What does this opening say to non-Muslims in the USA and in the Middle East alike?
Then we get this:
I’ve come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition.
Why is he putting America and Islam in the same categories? The more so when he goes on to say this:
I know there are many – Muslim and non-Muslim – who question whether we can forge this new beginning … Some suggest that it isn’t worth the effort – that we are fated to disagree, and civilizations are doomed to clash.
Then we get the ritual rehearsal of the scientific triumphs of an earlier Islam. This strikes me as implicitly patronising. Yes, centuries ago Islam achieved huge strides. But then what happened? The speech does not mention the ruinous civilisational consequences – closely analysed by the United Nations in its landmark 2002 Report – of the systemic failure down the centuries to translate non-Islamic books into Arabic.
The passages on women’s rights were dismal:
I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality. (Applause.)
Why not go on to say that a woman who is denied a free vote also is denied equality? And that so-called Islamic countries that deny men and women alike a free and fair vote are letting down themselves and humanity? Can’t say that in Mubarak’s Egypt. And the Saudis might not like it.
I do not believe that women must make the same choices as men in order to be equal, and I respect those women who choose to live their lives in traditional roles. But it should be their choice.
What exactly makes a choice free for women in an Islamic society? Surely in many parts of the Islamic world (and some Western countries now) the Islamic religion works to reinforce ages-old social/cultural gender roles under which women are manifestly subservient and dealt with violently when they try to make their own choices.
Issues of women’s equality are by no means simply an issue for Islam. In Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, we’ve seen Muslim-majority countries elect a woman to lead. Meanwhile, the struggle for women’s equality continues in many aspects of American life, and in countries around the world.
This is feeble, maybe even disgraceful. President Obama dared not point out one horrible truth that shows just how different the rights of women really are in Egypt and the United States: that women in Egypt have one of the world’s highest levels of female genital mutilation (approaching a staggering 80% for women aged 15-19, according to WHO statistics). And who can blame him? How on earth to raise the issue? But by not raising the issue and framing women’s rights in terms of headscarves and education, he conceded far too much political ground to Islamist extremists and cultural conservatives.
And so on. It boiled down to a well delivered speech full of clever emollient phrases that ultimately sent a message of appeasement to militant Islamist tendencies: Under my restrained leadership the United States will respect and accept conservative forms of Islam. Even if Islamism gets too aggressive we don’t plan to do much about it. And we may not be too active in supporting Muslim liberal trends either. Steady as she goes. And btw I do hope you have noticed that I am not G.W. Bush.
This limp approach quickly led to the awe-inspiring failure of Washington (with EU capitals meekly tucking in behind) to articulate a strong case for regime change in Iran when so many Iranians actually wanted something like our form of pluralism. That in turn left ‘the West’ responding fitfully and uncertainly to the Arab Spring events.
More generally, this speech moved US policy back from President Bush’s ill-fated ‘freedom agenda’ into a new version of an old bad habit. For decades too long Western capitals nodded deferentially at dreary national socialistic and other autocratic regimes across the Middle East, caught between a racist view that ‘Arabs can’t run a modern open society’ and a fear of anything which might threaten ‘stability’. The main failure of President Obama’s Cairo speech was that it talked about the wrong things. He so wanted to avoid causing offence that he avoided making the most basic strong points in favour of intelligent modern pluralism.
Now 200 or so weeks later Egypt itself is in political turmoil and struggling even to give its population basic food. Does any policy response to this disaster have a chance of working? And won’t any US Ambassador who actively tries to help end up being vilified?
Charles Crawford served as FCO speechwriter in the 1980s and then as British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw before leaving the UK Foreign Service in 2007 to start a new career as speechwriter, communications consultant and mediator. He can be reached via his website www.charlescrawford.biz or @CharlesCrawford