While pro-democracy protesters in Egypt are fighting it out in the streets against armed government thugs, there's another battle taking place in the court of public opinion. For those with a bent toward assuming everything this country does is evil and the same regardless of administration, President Obama has not done enough to support the pro-democracy forces.
But as today's Wikileaks document release shows, the Obama administration's approach to diplomacy and human rights is completely different than the Bush administration. Of course, you should always take these cables with a grain of salt, since they represent the point of view of the writer, but they're still enlightening.
In 2004, Yemen's President Saleh reached out to President Bush via diplomatic channels. This was shortly after Bush's re-election in 2004, the Iraq war was raging away, Afghanistan was languishing, and the term "Islamic extremists" was on the tip of everyone's tongue.
President Saleh emphasized his desire to be among the first foreign leaders to personally congratulate President Bush on his reelection, and said he needed to meet with Secretary of State designate Dr. Rice and other newly appointed senior officials to raise new regional developments that can only be discussed "face to face."
True to form, Saleh launched into a list of what he believes the U.S. owes him. "Where is the money for the Army, and what about my spare (F-5) parts?" Saleh demanded. Ambassador promise to follow up on this matter. (Note: OMC reports difficulties in getting MOD to follow through with the necessary paperwork on parts and equipment in order to spend the 17 million USD in Yemen's FMF account. End Note.)
You might wonder why Yemen's president felt as though he could be so petulant and demanding? I certainly did. The answer seems to be farther down in the cable.
Saleh raised the 28 security detainees, meant to be released in the Ramadan amnesty, who the ROYG has agreed to continue to hold based on USG objections. Saleh told Ambassador that the 28 were arrested under suspicion of AQ membership, having returned to Yemen from Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan, but that after investigation there was no evidence they were involved in terrorist acts. "We are waiting for information from you," said Saleh. Ambassador replied that we had already provided all the information currently available. The problem, said Ambassador, is continued ROYG refusal to exchange information. Ambassador reiterated that we have asked repeatedly for the evidence that led the ROYG to conclude these 28 should be released. Surely there must be case files, transcripts of interviews, investigation notes, pressed Ambassador, yet the ROYG maintains it has no information on these suspects.
There's more in there about grey market weapons transactions and the like, but these exchanges seem key. Clearly the Bush administration was trading aid, military funding, and weapons for Yemeni agreement to hold hostages on trumped-up, unprovable charges.
U.S. funding supports civil society efforts to train candidates and domestic monitors, educate voters and provide technical assistance to the GOE in administering the elections. However, the GOE remains skeptical of our role in democracy promotion, contending that any efforts to open up will result in empowering the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), which currently holds 86 seats in Egypt's 454-seat parliament. Widespread arrests and internal dissent have weakened the MB and its electoral chances, but many still see it as the only alternative to the current regime and a weak secular opposition. We have urged the GOE to expand the space provided to political actors, including allowing for the registration of new parties. GOE-sanctioned harassment of political activists continues. The most high-profile has been a decision by the GOE to deny Ayman Nour an exit visa to travel to Washington.
Now I am not arguing that all US funding supports election efforts. But I am saying that it's far too simplistic to simply say "Bah! The US supports the military and therefore is completely responsible for Mubarak's recalcitrance." Clearly US funding supports more than the military, so calling for that spigot to close may not be wise. Also, the keepers of the purse in the US are the Congress, not the President...but that's another topic for a different post.
Further on in the same cable, this:
Since May 2009, we have asked the government to take several steps forward, including:
- Lift the State of Emergency, and replace it with a counterterrorism law guaranteeing civil liberties.
- Release detained bloggers.
- Facilitate monitoring for the 2010 and 2011 elections.
- Register the U.S. NGOs operating in Egypt: NDI, IRI and IFES.
- Publicly endorse the quasi-governmental National Council for Human Rights' (NCHR) May 2009 recommendations, which include lifting the State of Emergency, addressing sectarian tensions, abolishing prison sentences for journalists, and passing legislation to combat torture more effectively.
- Pass uniform places of worship legislation to allow Christians to worship freely, and redress discrimination.
- Issue ID cards for Bahai'is.
Not quite the warmongering government of the past, is it? Seems to me these requests fall right into line with what the pro-democracy protesters are after.
Oh, here's something else our aid money funds:
While the GOE and its supporters claim that police brutality is unusual, human rights lawyers believe it continues to be a pervasive, daily occurrence in prisons, police stations and Interior Ministry State Security (SSIS) headquarters (ref D). Activists assert that the police and SSIS have adapted to increased media and blogger focus on police brutality by hiding the abuse and pressuring victims not to bring cases. Human rights lawyers believe the GOE should reduce pressure on officers to solve cases immediately, allow suspects to be accompanied by an attorney during questioning in police detention, and amend the laws to increase the penalties for brutality. We expect USG-funded human rights-oriented police training will resume in late January. Draft legislation increasing penalties for police brutality and broadening the definition of torture has languished in the Ministry of Justice.
And this, which is not aid-related but certainly appears to be a topic of deep concern to the State Department:
Prominent democracy activist XXXXXXXXXXXXXX (XXXXXXXXXXXX) remains in self-imposed exile in the United States following a June 2007 civil suit accusing him of committing "espionage" by urging President Bush to condition aid to Egypt. In May 2009, an appeals court reversed an August 2008 civil ruling against XXXXXXXXXXXXXX for "tarnishing Egypt's image abroad" in a suit filed by an NDP activist, and overturned the two-year prison sentence and fine (ref F). The appeals court also ruled that the five to six pending civil lawsuits against XXXXXXXXXXXXX on similar grounds be referred to the Prosecutor General (attorney-general equivalent) for investigation. The Public Prosecutor referred a separate criminal case against XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX for investigation in January 2009 for allegedly committing "espionage" by asserting in newspaper articles that he had convinced President Bush to withhold aid because of lack of progress on democratic reform.
The United States has had some rotten foreign policy, but I'm not seeing it in play in Egypt. What I am seeing, and what may make other regional leaders nervous, is an active push toward diplomatic solutions to flagrant human rights violations, and allocation of US dollars toward correcting those wrongs, which is a radical departure from the previous administration.