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Obama Urged to Press for More Democratic Reforms in Egypt

President Obama will be addressing the Muslim world this week from Cairo, the capital of a major U.S. ally in the Middle East. There are calls for him to send a message to Egypt, as well, showing his support for democratic reforms there and the growth of a civil leadership based on human rights.

The Egyptian constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press. But the U.S. State Department in its 2008 Human Rights report notes that the government of Hosni Mubarak partially restricted these rights in practice, and authorities showed little tolerance for peaceful demonstrations by opposition groups and activists protesting government policies.

Sherif Mansour, with the human rights organization Freedom House, enumerates some of the human rights violations his organization has documented in Egypt.

"One which is very visible right now is police brutality. One other areas where I think there are violations is happening on the political side is that there is no freedom of association," he says. "There is no freedom or tolerance to political organizations, and that includes demonstrations, and that's one of the violations that's happening in a rampant way all over."

Experts say U.S. policy makers have struggled to find ways of holding Egypt accountable for its human rights track record. Mansour recommends that the Obama administration use the annual review of U.S-Egyptian relations before allocation of foreign aid.

Dr. Dwight Bashir, a senior analyst at United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, agrees.

"We're encouraging that there should be a re-evaluation of the kinds of funding going towards Egypt if the government does not make progress on benchmarks that are agreed to by both governments. There should be a time table for progress, larger political and human rights reforms, and if those aren't met, the U.S. government should revisit the kinds of funding it's giving."

Bashir notes that Egypt is a role model in the region and warns that if the Obama administration allows a regression in human rights and democracy in Egypt, it is encouraging other Arab governments to follow the same path.

Atef Al-Saadawy, a fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, offers a set of policy options for president Obama to use in promoting democracy and human rights in the Middle East. First, he says, is stop supporting friendly but undemocratic regimes.

"Second step in this regard is to differentiate between the military intervention to overthrow dictators in the Arab world and the democracy promotion. The third step is to reorganize its foreign aids to civil societies and the governments in the Arab region to promote democracy. Fourth step is to continue to exert pressure on political regimes in the region to respect human rights and to push forward democratization efforts in the region."

But those steps are not easy. Marc Lynch, associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, points out the limitations facing president Obama in prodding Egypt toward more openness.

"I think it is very difficult because the United States doesn't have as many levers as it should, and the Egyptian government has proven unwilling to respond to American advice or even pressure, and that leaves very few options. Personally, I am in favor of putting conditions on American economic and military assistance to Egypt, but I understand why many other people in the American debate are leery of that, because of the strategic benefits that Egypt offers."

But President Obama does have other options, says Michele Dunne, senior associate and editor of the Arab Reform Bulletin at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She says Washington should not put conditions on the aid that has already been agreed on, but make clear that human rights considerations will influence U.S. thinking regarding additional aid or benefits, such as free trade agreements and other incentives.

"I think the message from the United States at this point should be: We want to continue to have a partnership with you, but we can only our relationship and partnership in the way we would like to if we have a mutual understanding between the United States and Egypt that the government of Egypt is moving forward to improve human rights and economic and political conditions for its citizens."

In many respects, Dunne says, Egyptian society is better prepared for a democratic transition than any other country in the region, so President Obama should do whatever he can to ensure it does not drift back to the widespread model of a single leader in power and all opposition in jail.