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Obama's Reverse-Pivot to the Middle East Offers Yet Another Opportunity for "Change"

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President Obama's well-organized speech in front of the UN General Assembly on September 24, 2013, was marked by an apparent recognition that the ensuing battle for the future of the Middle East, as opposed to Asia, will determine the near-term geopolitical future and balance of power in the world for at least a generation to come. Up unto that point, Obama's Mideast policy had been, by design, mostly rhetorical, meant to salvage the Muslim world's public opinion as much as possible while pivoting the loci of US concern to the projected high-growth economies of East Asia. Mideastern interest was mostly confined to preserving the US's unspoken military dominance in the Gulf and increasingly East Africa.

President Obama's election once spurred some early "hope" that US-Mideast relations would alter but, as scholar Fawaz Gerges has described it, "Contrary to the public perceptions, Obama's lofty rhetoric about a new start in relations between the United States and Muslim countries did not signify that the region ranked high on his foreign-policy agenda. When Israeli-Palestinian peace talks proved much costlier than Obama and his advisers had foreseen, the president first allowed his vice president to be humiliated by the Israeli prime minister and then awkwardly disengaged from the peace process, thereby undermining his own credibility and doing consequent damage to America's prestige and influence. So while Obama has invested some political effort on Mideast diplomacy, he has shown himself unwilling to do more to achieve a breakthrough. The decision speaks volumes about the administration's foreign-policy priorities, as well as the decline of American power and influence in the region." (Obama and the Middle East, 2012, p.11)

Nevertheless, Obama's latest UN address seemed to offer a 'reverse-pivot' and path to serious reconcentration. In the speech Obama explained that the US "will be engaged in the region for the long-haul" and he suggested that reengagement will center around reinitiating the Israel-Palestine peace process and resolving the Iranian nuclear issue. Now, after five years of reduced focus, and in turn influence, from all but the region's major oil producers, the Obama administration has recognized that its withdrawal has created conditions under which foreign powers have emerged and through which regional discord, civil conflict, and divide have exasperated. Today stark division subsists not only between Sunnis and Shiites, secularists and Islamists, but also increasingly between a politicized and militant social underbelly and their elite and traditionally Western-allied counterparts.

Obama's speech offered one very promising principle that could slowly mediate such clash. While addressing the unfolding conflict in Egypt, Obama expanded the definition of American interests beyond oil, Israel, and neoliberal economics to include support for the development of government that "legitimately reflects the collective will of the people." If realized in practice and policy, that would prove a major alteration that might initiate a new era and style of American diplomacy. In the end, long-term lessons might be learned that document concern with the promotion of pluralism and representative governance leads to mutually beneficial engagement while real politick masked in rhetoric more often than not results only in entanglement and eventual catastrophe. If the past five years are any indication Obama's words will prove merely a rhetorical tool, an attempt to deflect the enhanced awareness that Obama really has not had a Mideast policy. Whether because of that reality or in spite of it, the center of gravity in international affairs has clearly shifted back to the Middle East. Any actual connection between the U.S. hegemon's vital interests and support and aid for authentic representative government, with all the plurality and risk that necessarily accompanies it, would not only represent a major change in course but may usher in an era led by America in the Middle East.

The Obama presidency began with an order to close Guantanamo Bay. In June of 2009 he went to Cairo and called for a "new beginning between the United States and Muslims." But, like his promise to close the Guantanamo Prison, his efforts to improve relations have proven overblown. 

It is important to recognize that Obama did not, at this time, link democracy promotion to the national interests of either the US or the people of the Middle East. In his Cairo address he stated, "I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq. So let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by another." 

As opposed to his democratic primary opponent Hillary Clinton, now-President Obama actually rejected a policy of democratization and reform initiated by President Bill Clinton in the 1990's after it became apparent that political Islam was on the rise and the days of Arab authoritarianism were numbered. Instead, Obama called Mubarak a "stalwart ally" and when the Arab Spring protests rent asunder in Tunisia and Egypt his Vice President Joe Biden refused to label Mubarak a dictator. In actuality, US reaction sought to subvert Egyptian protests and first to replace Mubarak with his vice president, Omar Suleiman. They maintained support for Ben Ali in Tunisia until his departure and continue to support oil-rich autocrats in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. They increased military support and cooperation in Yemen even after the regime started firing on protesters and then were pressured by Britain and France to intervene in Libya before remaining totally lethargic so far with regard to Syria. Contrary to the popular American narrative, the number-one obstacle in the way of Obama's actual foreign-policy strategy has been the surging demand for democratically-minded transformation across the Middle East.

Despite the recent reversion to authoritarianism and other complications, any lasting US influence in the Muslim world "for the long haul" will necessitate both policy and practice that tracks closer to the democratic oratory espoused by Obama's teleprompter. 

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Egypt, home of a quarter of the Arab world's population and arguably its cultural center, represents the best opportunity for such alterations. At the same time it is a case study in American hypocrisy. In Obama's UN speech he argued that in Egypt Mohammed Morsi was elected but "proved unwilling or unable to govern in a way that was mutually exclusive." The President said nothing however of the reempowered military junta presently running the country with its long experience in autocracy. And Obama emphasized that the US "purposefully avoided choosing sides" while failing to mention that by refusing to classify the intervention as a coup the US has clearly made its decision. "We have determined that it is not in the best interests of the United States to make that determination," as he put it before. He then went on to connect US interests to the support and aid of government reflecting the "collective will" of the Egyptian people. However, "collective will" is a vague term that can easily be manipulated in definition, away from one that supports government for the people by the people and into one that serves as a cover for a return to elite dictatorship protected by sustained US assistance.

So far US policy has show no sign of promoting actual pluralism. In August, Secretary of State John Kerry described the coup in Egypt as "restoring democracy." That was right before the regime gunned down hundreds of nonviolent, pro-Morsi protesters, classifying the women and children killed as terrorists, rounded up the leaders of the nonviolent Muslim Brotherhood and imprisoned them on trumped-up charges, shut off free expression, closed down television stations, imposed curfews, and reset emergency laws from the Mubarak era. 

As the late Christopher Hitchens succinctly described it, most nations are states that have militaries but Egypt is a military that has a state. The root obstacle now to pluralism and government representative of the collective will in Egypt is in fact the 'deep state' that revolves around the military. In reaction to the clear coup, the Obama administration merely canceled a joint military exercise, temporarily reviewed the $1.3 billion in military aid before sustaining the bulk of it and has sat idly since as all genuine political plurality has been subverted. For their part, the EU conducted an "urgent review of Egyptian relations", partially suspended the export of military equipment, and continued most of a $5 billion package in loans and aid to support "democratic transitions." Such assistance will further entrench the return of Egyptian totalitarianism.

These efforts at 'democracy restoration' do not represent the plurality of either Arab or Egyptian thought. Neither the Egyptian military nor US government has ever supported Mideast publics. In reality, such manipulation is part and parcel of a sustained suppression of political Islam that has hallmarked the West's creation of the modern Middle East through the secretive Sykes-Picot accords of the first world-war era. 

The preference for Arab authoritarianism has only heightened since it became clear in the 1990s that any free and fair elections would bring Islamists to power. The interim Egyptian government has issued a "road map" to restore elections. However, that road map was drawn up absent consultation, even with members of the anti-Morsi coalition busy slogging that the people and the military are "one hand." The interim government announced a 50-member panel that will draft a new constitution, but that panel will include only two, pro-regime Islamists, and so could not be realistically representative of Egyptian aspirations. The people of Egypt overwhelmingly elected Islamists in initial parliamentary and presidential elections. And while the so-called Islamist constitution of Morsi passed through national referendum, the new constitution will be put to no test other than the scrutiny of a judiciary that recently added insult to injury by releasing Hosni Mubarak from his prison chains.

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The interim government is led by former finance minister Hazem el-Bablawi, a proponent of the neoliberal reforms induced under Mubarak who argues for an outright ban of the Muslim Brotherhood. Actual Egyptian political plurality, not unlike the rest of the Middle East, is extremely diverse. True liberals performed horribly in early elections but represent a growing segment of society especially amongst the youth. The National Salvation Front is a coalition of parties that range from strict secularists to Nasserites, communists, and people of all political persuasions. The ultraorthodox salafi al-Nour party won more than a quarter of the seats in Egypt's first parliament. The nationalist al-Wafd party, present in Egypt since the days of British colonialism, has a heavy constituency, and many other parties and platforms formulated in the early days after the Arab Spring. The coup and return of control to the military backed by the judiciary and its remnants of the Mubarak-age will only subvert the collective will of the Egyptian mass through a return to one-party dominance.

Much has been made about the Obama administration's embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood. Truth be told, such embracement had more to do with pragmatism than any actual support for change. The US wields tremendous global economic influence and with the Egyptian economy on the brink of collapse it wasn't hard to imagine that the Islamists' early election victories would be short gained. 

President Morsi was no radical. He appointed General Sissi to please the US and his constitution did nothing to take away the military's powers. He shut out his salafist counterparts almost altogether. He embraced IMF loans and hosted a trade delegation for major US multinationals. US communication was always paternalistic. For example, John Kerry attached its meager financial support to Morsi's backing of IMF reform. "In light of Egypt's extreme needs and President Morsi's assurance that he plans to complete the IMF process, today I have advised him that the US will now provide the first $190 million of our pledged $450 million in budget support funds," he said. At the onset of Egyptian protests against a controversial Youtube video last September, Obama called Morsi's government a "work in progress." The Obama administration clearly recognized that the Muslim Brotherhood-led government would be constrained by an obstructionist judiciary that had already dismissed a democratically elected Islamist parliament and was blocking the new constitution.

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Younes Abdullah Muhammed is a Muslim American and Master of International Affairs. He is presently incarcerated in the U.S. Federal Prison system. He is the founder of Islam Policy and can be contacted at

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