In his much-anticipated speech in Cairo, President Barack Obama dismissed the equation of democracy promotion with the war in Iraq. He affirmed his commitment to “governments that reflect the will of the people” while accepting that “each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people.”
Yet Obama used the occasion to confirm his belief in the universality of democratic values, his conviction 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. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.”
He implicitly challenged the argument that democracy would breed instability and play into the hands of extremist forces: “governments that protect these [above] rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure,” he said.
Without explicitly mentioning Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood or the region’s other Islamist movements, Obama appeared to concede that the U.S. would engage with such forces if they adhered to democratic norms and practices. The U.S. “respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them,” he said. “And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments – provided they govern with respect for all their people.”
The speech became more hard-hitting towards the end of the section on democracy with some choice phrases that should have made his host, President Hosni Mubarak, wince:
[Y]ou must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.