Last Thursday I went to the US Embassy as invited guest to listen to Barack Obama’s Cairo address. And I came out mightily impressed by the depth and scope of his speech. Drawing on his own personal experience of Muslim-majority countries, which greatly helped convince his audience, the US President outlined the seven crucial issues that in his view need to be resolved for a new beginning in relations between the West and the Muslim world.
Though l do have two concerns. Firstly that, by defining the debate in religious terms, Obama didn’t include those in both the West and Muslim world who have no faith or do not regard their religious affiliation as the primary focus of their life and identity. Many such people exist and have an important contribution to make to this discourse. And secondly, while he touched on almost everything else, he didn’t address the importance of development aid, which has always been a major tool of foreign policy.
We should all welcome Obama’s comments on the occupation of the West Bank and illegal settlements, as this change in language is in itself very significant. In reality, though, he will be judged by his follow-up actions and not simply by his fine words. He needs to make it clear that aid to Israel will be cut if the construction and expansion of illegal settlements continues, as the Economist recently suggested. Many US citizens will be amazed to hear that the biggest recipient of US aid is affluent Israel and that it has not been going to those in desperate need around the world. Obama also needs close the tax loophole that allows the private funding of illegal settlements by US-based charitable organisations.
Equally, continued US aid to Egypt should be made contingent on moves towards genuine democracy. The Mubarak regime has become much discredited, with its dictatorial nature having been exposed by dissidents, many of whom now live in London. The existing political system does not leave much space if any for those who disagree with Mubarak, and it would in everybody’s interest to democratise Egypt and allow its lively civil society to play a full role in politics. Otherwise, the political vacuum after Mubarak eventually leaves the scene could be filled by an even more repressive regime. Better for Obama to press for democratic reform now rather than leave it till it is too late.
Finally, while l feel much more comfortable with a USA led by Obama, I haven’t forgotten that the key issue for many Londoners with the US Embassy here is that it should pay its outstanding congestion charge bill. That will be something to pursue with the new US ambassador when he arrives. In the meantime, l think it’s time for me to pay a trip to the Al-Azhar, in Cairo.