An Attempt to Assess American Foreign Policy vis-à-vis Human Rights in the Arab Region

In International Advocacy Program by



Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies CIHRS organized jointly with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace a panel discussion on 10 January 2009, with the aim of evaluating American policies vis-à-vis human rights in the Arab region. The timing of the forum, which adds more importance thereto, comes nearly two weeks after the Israeli ferocious attack on Gaza Strip on the one hand, and ten days only from the procedures for handing over power in the United States of America to Barak Obama. The US elected president will face, from the very moment he sets foot into the White House, huge challenges. He will have to cope with a substantial legacy of domestic and external problems inherited from the Bush Administration, throughout eight years that were enough to discredit the United States and place its reputation and credibility at stake.

Three of the senior researchers at the Carnegie Endowment took part in this forum, held at CIHRS headquarters: Dr. Marina Ottaway, Dr. Amr Hamzawi and Dr. Thomas Carothers.

From Egypt, several key personalities participated in the main interventions: Mr. Abdel Ghaffar Shukr, Deputy Chairman of the Center of Arab and African Researches, Mr. Khalil Al Anani, writer and political analyst at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, Dr. Oussama Al-Ghazali Harb, Editor-in-Chief of International Politics Magazine and President of the Democratic Front Party, Dr. Gamal Abdel Gawwad, Head of the International Relations Unit of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, and Mr. Bahey El Din Hassan, CIHRS Director.

Dr. Wahid Abdel Meguid, Head of Arab Studies Unit of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies moderated the discussions.

Generally speaking, interventions of a considerable number of speakers warned against great expectations or rather “myths” hinged upon the Obama Administration, which might in turn create a state of expected disillusionment if not taking into consideration that Obama’s mandate is to regain the credibility of the United States globally, which is an extremely difficult task requiring first of all to draw lessons from the enormous failures of the Bush policies, which in fact necessitates quite a long period of time to remedy, and will more likely consume greater efforts from the succeeding American administration.

Obama’s Priorities in the Light of the War on Gaza

Interventions drew attention that the Palestinian cause has no beent a top priority in Obama’s election platform, which indicated that the hierarchy of priorities for the  Obama Administration is focused domestically on facing the repercussions of the global economic crisis, and externally on opting out of Iraq and decisively settling the war in Afghanistan and restraining Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

However, several interventions gave preponderance to the fact that the repercussions of the war in Gaza will impose some kind of modification of the priorities of the new American Administration, indicating Obama’s declaration –albeit late- of his intention to deal with this issue and to engage therein as soon as his tenure begins.

Some interventions pointed out in this context that one of the major motives for Hamas to end the truce and begin by re-launching rockets on some Israeli villages aimed at reheating the Israeli-Palestinian struggle to impose it on the agenda of the new American Administration. Meanwhile, Israel’s aim behind the barbarous attack against Gaza is to add more complication and impose new facts on the ground which are difficult for the new American Administration to deal with.

Interventions tended to argue that the Obama Administration will strive to show interest in Palestinians’ expectations without letting this affect American interests in the region or divert its well-established and biased standpoint in protecting Israel’s security.

Thus, one can argue that there are opportunities to effect some changes –albeit in very limited margins- in the attitude of the American Administration vis-à-vis the Palestinian cause. This argument is supported by the fact that the American policy cannot be worse in future than it is at present. In fact for the eight past years, the American policy was characterized by full conformity with Israeli standpoints throughout eight years, whereas the Bush Administration was highly keen to bestow legitimacy on every Israeli incursion in the Occupied Territories. Furthermore, this Administration offered every possible form of political and diplomatic support to various Israeli attitudes. Some interventions confirmed in this connections that it is difficult to imagine that this policy would sustain, as it shattered US credibility to the furthest extent, especially in the light of Bush’s disdainful attitude toward the sustained slaughters in Gaza and the exacerbation of the humanitarian situation in an unprecedented way.

The interventions added that Obama, who has put on top of his agenda once he assumes office addressing the Muslim world through one of the Muslim capitals, is full conscious that the main portal for addressing the Muslim World is Palestine. Furthermore, there is a growing awareness that overlooking the Palestinian cause is risky, from the perspective of American interests in the Arab region and from the perspective of Obama’s expectations that the US would restore credibility in this region in particular.

Some interventions warned that, irrespective of the outcome of the war in Gaza, the opportunity for political settlement on the basis of two states (Israel and Palestine) will continue to face huge difficulties, even if the war undermines Hamas military capacities, practically speaking there are no political substitutes for Hamas authority in Gaza. It is highly likely tat the struggle between Fatah and Hamas will sustain, which threatens that political action will proceed in two tracks, with two separate polities in the West Bank and Gaza.

Opportunities for Supporting Democracy and Restoring Credibility

Interventions emphasized that practical policies adopted by the Bush administration to motivate democratic change in the Arab World did not achieve substantial success. On the contrary, they contributed to undermining US credibility in achieving political reform.

Several speakers noted that the Bush administration tended to constantly display a readiness to sacrifice democracy and human rights whenever they collided with American interests, either at the short or long term, and demonstrated US weakness to tolerate risks ensuing from US attempt to achieve the objectives of political reform. This was in particular evident in the United States’ attitude vis-à-vis Palestinian elections which culminated with Hamas’ victory. The American administration did not acknowledge the legitimacy of the government formed by Hamas, and classified it as a terrorist organization refusing to acknowledge the state of Israel. The United States contributed later on in undermining the national unity government which incorporated both Fatah and Hamas, exactly like the case in Egypt when pressures for reform relaxed after the Muslim Brothers won nearly 20% of the parliamentary seats.

Some interventions pointed out that the US did not take into consideration in the process of pushing further the process of democracy that the Arab World lacks liberal political parties and civil society organizations which could contribute powerfully in this process. The inner propelling force is almost restricted in movements with religious or ethnic identities, especially in the light of the severe weakness of secular and leftist parties, which consequently leads to unsatisfactory results according to the calculations of the American administration. Not only this, but the Arab rank-and-file, some of whose segments have growing concerns over the prominent ascendancy of Islamic parties, perceives that this phenomenon is reminiscent of the fact that balances of political power within most Arab countries does not tilt in favor of democratic reform.

Some interventions indicated in this context that Arab regimes remain the most powerful among different political actors and was able to either assimilate or crush their opponents. This has placed the American Administration in a dilemma, whereas strategic interests constantly give preponderance to dealing with regimes to dealing with opposition movements. This in turn pushes the American Administration to ward adopting measures devoid of any essence, depicted as achievements on the path toward democratic change.

Other interventions noted that the American Administration and the West in general failed to understand the idiosyncrasies characterizing the Arab region, a prominent feature thereof is that the trends of internal development are primarily hinged upon the outcomes of regional conflicts, particularly the Arab/Israeli conflict, which is still on top of the priority structure of the Arab mind and in societies still predominated by the culture of national liberation and did not give the minimum interest to democracy. While regional conflicts are still absorbing the greatest part of the vitality of the region, the Bush Administration attempted to separate between providing an impetus for democratic change on the one hand, and dealing with regional conflicts on the other, which left its negative imprints on pushing toward democracy. Some speakers added that opportunities for supporting democracy under the Bush Administration were damaged to a great extent by American policies and practices in Iraq, which gave an impression that democratization claims adopted by the Bush administration were synonymous with changing regimes through military intervention or spreading creative chaos! Furthermore, policies and strategies adopted by the American Administration in the wake of the war on terror have practically intensified instead of put a limit to terrorism. Meanwhile, they were associated with widespread violations of human rights, under the umbrella of terrorism, promoted stereotypes which overstate the Islamic threat and classify Islamists as potential enemies.

Interventions of participants tended toward the argument that the Obama Administration will not thrust into adopting the same rhetoric as the Bush administration did in calling for democracy and political reform within the Arab World, and will not follow the same approach or methods as the Bush Administration did, which proved at the end of the day to be a failure.

Interventions stressed that there are opportunities for propping up democracy and that they will be contingent to a great extent on a number of factors and considerations, on top of which are the following:

1- The process of bolstering democracy should be cleansed from the negative stigma associated with it during the rule of President Bush. This can take place by emphasizing US respect for international standards of human rights and international humanitarian law, and putting an end to the false association underpinned by the Bush administration between supporting democracy and military intervention and changing regimes through force. Interventions noted that some positive indicators in this context found expression in Obama’s declaration of his commitment to close down the Guantanamo prison and to prohibit torture within the prisons of the United States of America. Furthermore, Obama adopts ideas which betray a greater readiness to establish a dialogue with countries of the region and with neighbors, and consequently a predisposition to avoid the policy of collision or confrontation with governments.
2- The new American administration should move from an attempt to stress a new Arab order similar to the Western liberal democratic image, to an attempt to assist Arab States into re-building their political regimes in a way that responds to socio-economic variables. The establishment of an effective political regime capable of withstanding challenges of change will limit tensions constantly leading to suppressing aspects of disaffection and opposition. Thus, it is likely that the American Administration will follow more pragmatic and less ambitious policies in support of democracy. This state of affairs may require that the American Administration sets more modest objectives in the most vulnerable countries to regional conflicts, taking into consideration that the opportunities of effecting qualitative changes will be greater in countries further remote from the arena of regional conflicts (Arab Maghreb countries for instance).

Participants voiced their expectations in this context that there will be a recession in concern over issues of political participation, elections, and rotation of power against relatively greater concern over human rights violations and more sensitivity toward harassing defenders of human rights and their respective organizations.
Several participants maintained that pushing toward democracy will be primarily contingent upon internal developments and interactions within Arab countries. Democracy cannot be imposed from without, they claimed, and hence the new American Administration should adopt a more realistic approach and should give more priority to modifying the political and cultural environment where democracy can develop. This in turn requires that the American Administration supports efforts geared toward modernizing education, disseminating liberal values, and encouraging scientific and academic culture. They also highlighted the necessity of openness to various organizations working in the field of politics as well as civil society in order to understand more deeply the viewpoints of different categories within the Arab World.

To sum up, participants emphasized that hopes associated with the Obama Administration should not be relinquished, yet they will be contingent to a great extent not on ideas raised by this new administration, but also on indicators and opportunities which the Arab World could offer thereto. In the light of factors of internal frailty of political organizations and civil society, pressures brought to bear by external actors will readily exercise a negative rather than positive impact.

Participants also asserted that the American Administration can play a better role in support of democracy, provided this role is dependent upon an effective role in resolving the Palestinian cause on fair grounds. This can relieve the American Administration from pressures of political extortion either by Arab regimes or some Arab political elites.

Share this Post