Obama Speech: Will The Real Action Be For Civil Society?

May 19, 2011

President ObamaWatching President Obama deliver a major speech today on the Middle East is a reminder that even major speeches go only so far: It’s what follows them that really counts.

Certainly there was something to like about some of the rhetoric: Obama specifically pointed to the government of Bahrain, a US ally, and told it to embrace political change and to release political prisoners. “You can’t have dialogue when parts of peaceful opposition are in jail,” he said.

Likewise, his call for peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine based on 1967 borders could shake up failed negotiations.

But the rhetoric on human rights and democracy was strong two years ago when the president spoke in Cairo.  To many human rights activists in the region, the Obama Administration has spent the past two years failing to live up to that rhetoric in the region and being behind the curve of the Arab Spring.

And today’s speech again was filled with the double standards that have long challenged U.S. policy in the region. Obama condemned the shooting of Syrian protesters by Syrian security forces, but he maintained the US silence on the killing of Syrian demonstrators by Israeli soldiers just last week. Apparently who shoots a Syrians matters for a lot.

T. Kumar, international advocacy director for Amnesty International USA, remarked:

“The fact that the president failed to mention political prisoners in Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates begs the question: Will the United States push to see that human rights in those countries also are protected.  The question is left unanswered.”

In fact, Obama seemed resigned at his ability to press even friendly governments into political change.  Instead, he seemed to put greater hope at the building of Arab civil society into a force that the governments of the region cannot overlook.

And the one substantive policy announced in the speech was aimed more at civil society than the region’s governments: Debt relief and economic development for Egypt, which is key to reversing poverty and supporting economic progress in the region.

For decades, Amnesty International has documented the muzzling of civil society throughout the region.  Throughout the region, governments with impunity censored books, controlled newspapers and television stations, harassed and limited political and non-governmental organization, attacked women’s groups and other ethnic and social minorities.

The lesson of the Arab Spring is that civil society in the region is a naturally vibrant organism that would like our support but isn’t waiting for us to take the lead. If the Obama Administration is incapable of changing the region’s governments, the best thing it can do is to offer real, concrete support for Arab civil society, then stand back and let it bring change itself.