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Professor Juan Cole and Cairo-Based Analyst Issandr El Amrani on Obama’s Historic Address

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We get analysis of Obama’s speech from Cairo-based independent analyst Issandr El Amrani and Professor Juan Cole, author of Engaging the Muslim World. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryJun 04, 2009In Cairo Speech, Obama Calls for “New Beginning” Between US and Muslims Worldwide
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: President Obama delivered a highly anticipated speech in Cairo, Egypt, today, aimed at Muslims across the world. He arrived in Cairo this morning amid what is being described as the biggest security operation ever seen in Egypt. That country’s capital was in a state of lockdown, with tens of thousands of police lining the streets and military helicopters circling overhead. The huge security presence was reportedly bolstered by up to 3,000 CIA operatives.

Obama joined Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on a palace balcony for the welcoming ceremony. The two then met privately for about twenty minutes. Obama was then escorted to Cairo University to deliver his landmark address.

In his speech, Obama defended his decision to escalate the occupation of Afghanistan and refused to apologize for the invasion of Iraq that has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. On the Israel-Palestine conflict, Obama refused to call for a full Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories, but he said settlement building should stop.

The address was hosted jointly by Cairo University and Al-Azhar University. This is how Obama began his address.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I’m grateful for your hospitality and the hospitality of the people of Egypt. And I’m also proud to carry with me the good will of the American people and a greeting of peace from Muslim communities in my country: As’salaamu alaykum.

    We meet at a time of great tension between the United States and Muslims around the world, tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate. The relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of coexistence and cooperation, but also conflict and religious wars. More recently, tension has been fed by colonialism, that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War, in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations. Moreover, the sweeping change brought by modernity and globalization led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam.

    Violent extremists have exploited these tensions in a small but potent minority of Muslims. The attacks of September 11, 2001, and the continued efforts of these extremists to engage in violence against civilians has led some in my country to view Islam as inevitably hostile not only to America and Western countries, but also to human rights. All this has bred more fear and more mistrust.

    So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, those who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. And this cycle of suspicion and discord must end.

    I’ve come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Obama went on to reference his own personal background.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: That is what I will try to do today, to speak the truth as best I can, humbled by the task before us and firm in my belief that the interests we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces that drive us apart.

    Now, part of this conviction is rooted in my own experience. I’m a Christian, but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims. As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and at the fall of dusk. As a young man, I worked in Chicago communities where many found dignity and peace in their Muslim faith. As a student of history, I also know civilization’s debt to Islam. It was Islam, at places like Al-Azhar, that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment.

    Now, much has been made of the fact that an American — an African American with the name Barack Hussein Obama could be elected president. But my personal story is not so unique. The dream of opportunity for all people has not come true for everyone in America, but its promise exists for all who come to our shores.

JUAN GONZALEZ: President Obama also referenced 9/11 and the US reaction to the attacks.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Just as America can never tolerate violence by extremists, we must never alter or forget our principles. Nine-eleven was an enormous trauma to our country. The fear and anger that it provoked was understandable. But in some cases, it led us to act contrary to our traditions and our ideals. We are taking concrete actions to change course. I have unequivocally prohibited the use of torture by the United States, and I have ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed by early next year.

    So, America will defend itself, respectful of the sovereignty of nations and the rule of law. And we will do so in partnership with Muslim communities which are also threatened. The sooner the extremists are isolated and unwelcome in Muslim communities, the sooner we will all be safer.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama, giving his address to the Muslim world from Cairo University in Egypt. We’re going to play more from his address in a few minutes, but first, for analysis, we’ll turn to several people.

Juan Cole is an internationally respected historian and blogger, professor of history at University of Michigan. His blog, Informed Comment, receives 250,000 unique hits every month. Author of numerous books, his latest, Engaging the Muslim World, joining us here in our firehouse studio.

And on the phone with us from Cairo is Issandr El Amrani, an independent political analyst who blogs at arabist.net.

Issandr, could you start off by talking about the climate now, Issandr, the climate in Egypt around President Obama’s speech and what it’s been like?

ISSANDR EL AMRANI: Well, really, the city has been turned upside down over the last week as the preparations for this — the speech have been made. Several of the locations that President Obama visited today have been completely revamped. Often, for instance, in the case of Cairo University, there’s a certain irony to it, because this institution of learning has been — has declined in the quality of education [inaudible], and there’s many issues with the freedom that students have. And in the last few days, several students, who I suppose were thought to be too politically active, have been arrested.

So, you know, there’s been a lot of excitement, of course. President Obama is still in a honeymoon period, I think, globally. A lot of people are excited about a potential change in US policy in the Middle East. But there’s also a healthy dose of skepticism. I think people were curious about what he had to say, but aren’t overly optimistic. They’re going to wait and see concrete action.

And otherwise, for most in Cairoans today, it’s been a day off work, because it’s virtually impossible to go around the city. And so, I guess they’ve taken time off. Many people watching the speech. I was out earlier, saw part of the speech at a local cafe. And people are moderately excited, but really, at the end, curious about what he was going to say. From the reactions I’ve seen, they’re not overwhelmed. There were happy about some of the religious — the message of religious reconciliation that he gave. And I think, you know, we’re still going to have to wait to see what the speech is followed by in terms of concrete action.

AMY GOODMAN: Issandr El Amrani is joining us from Cairo. He blogs at arabist.net. When we come back, we’ll also be joined by Juan Cole. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. And we’ll play more highlights from President Obama’s address. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guests: Issandr El Amrani is an internationally respected blogger, he blogs at arabist.net; and Juan Cole, internationally respected historian and blogger, professor of history at University of Michigan, his blog, Informed Comment. His book, latest one, is Engaging the Muslim World.

Your response to the speech of President Obama?

JUAN COLE: Well, I think it is a historic speech, and I think it’s comparable to the kind of speech that Roosevelt gave in the ’30s, when he changed around US relationship to Latin America and adopted a good neighbor policy. And I think historians will look back upon it as a turning point.

It is true that, you know, it is a little bit generalized, but he had so many important highlights with regard to the US relationship with the Muslim world. He emphasized the importance of the Muslim American community. And he did address some specifics that are important. I mean, opinion polls show that what the Arab world, in particular, cares about most is the US getting out of Iraq. And Obama was very forthright on that issue. They say they care about, you know, not being humiliated by Western dominance. He made pledges in that regard.

And, of course, they care very much about the plight of the Palestinians, and Obama went further in talking about displacement, the situation of refugees, the lack of a state, than I can’t think — I can’t think of any other president that’s gone that far in empathizing with the Palestinian situation.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Juan Cole, as usual, it was a very well-crafted and eloquent speech, that Obama is known for now. But he also, as you say, made some references that, to my knowledge, no other American president has ever made. One, he recognized the history of colonialism that had — by the West in the Muslim world. He also used the word “occupation” for the situation of the Palestinians. And he even at one point recognized that the United States had played a role in overthrowing the democratically elected government in Iran, something that no president has ever, as far as I know, acknowledged. So, in many ways, he was breaking ground in terms of recognition of the past. But how much in terms of like breakthroughs for the future?

JUAN COLE: Well, you know, specific policy was going to be important. What concrete steps is he going to take? And I think, you know, pledging that he will be out of Iraq and that he’s going to treat Iraq as a partner, not as a patron, is a big applause line in the Muslim world and in the Arab world, in particular.

Also, he’s got a very difficult situation on his hands, if he’s going to make any progress on the Palestine issue, because the current Israeli government is absolutely opposed to Obama’s stated policies, and he doesn’t have a lot of levers of power over Israel. He can’t — as an executive, he can’t threaten to cut off money. He can only really jawbone them.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to the excerpt of President Obama’s speech on Israel and Palestine.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.

    Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust. Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald, which was part of a network of camps where Jews were enslaved, tortured, shot and gassed to death by the Third Reich. Six million Jews were killed, more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, it is ignorant, and it is hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction, or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews, is deeply wrong and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.

    On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people, Muslims and Christians, have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years, they’ve endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations, large and small, that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own.

    For decades then, there has been a stalemate: two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history that makes compromise elusive. It’s easy to point fingers — for Palestinians to point to the displacement brought about by Israel’s founding, and for Israelis to point to the constant hostility and attacks throughout its history from within its borders as well as beyond. But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.

    That is in Israel’s interest, Palestine’s interest, America’s interest and the world’s interest. And that is why I intend to personally pursue this outcome with all the patience and dedication that the task requires. The obligations — the obligations that the parties have agreed to under the road map are clear. For peace to come, it is time for them, and all of us, to live up to our responsibilities.

    Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong, and it does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia, from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. […]

    At the same time, Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.

    And Israel must also live up to its obligation to ensure that Palestinians can live and work and develop their society. Just as it devastates Palestinian families, the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel’s security; neither does the continuing lack of opportunity in the West Bank. Progress in the daily lives of the Palestinian people must be a critical part of a road to peace, and Israel must take concrete steps to enable such progress.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama’s historic address at Cairo University in Egypt that took place just before this broadcast. As he addresses Israel-Palestine, Professor Cole, what more do you have to say on his points?

JUAN COLE: Well, despite Obama’s pledge to speak very frankly and forthrightly, he did tiptoe around a little bit. He — really, it’s the first time, I think, he’s talked about the humiliation and the economic problems of Palestinians who are under essentially Israeli blockade in Gaza and these checkpoints in the West Bank and so forth. But, you know, a recent study has found that ten percent of Gazan children are actually stunted by lack of nutrition. I mean, the Israelis — you know, one Israeli official said they were going to put the Palestinians on a diet. They really are not letting in enough food for the Gazans. So, this is an intolerable situation. You know, it’s something that goes beyond the polite words that Obama used. But he really has gone further in this regard, I think, than any other American president.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yet, at the same time, he urges the Palestinians to renounce violence, saying that resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. But the reality is, had the Palestinians not continued to resist, it’s unlikely that there’d even still be a discussion right now of creating a two-state solution. Isn’t it the continued resistance of the Palestinians to their occupation that has forced — continues to force the world to deal with the issue?

JUAN COLE: Well, I’m not so sure. I mean, I think Obama may be right about this particular situation. The Palestinians don’t really have a place to hide. But if you tried to conduct a guerrilla war under those circumstances, you would just be attrited by the other side. I think that if the Palestinians — you know, they were peasants. They — a lot of them were illiterate. They were refugees. I mean, I’m not blaming them, but I think if they had been able to develop a Martin Luther King or Gandhi kind of nonviolent resistance, that it would have been much more successful than, you know, blowing up the cafe at Hebrew University and so forth.

But Obama is right. This is the only logical solution. I say in my book, you know, that if this isn’t achieved soon, then you’re going to be in for decades of apartheid. And ultimately, Israel’s own legitimacy and existence could be threatened by its occupation of others.

AMY GOODMAN: It was interesting when he talked about Iraq, saying — giving the timeline, saying we’ll honor our agreement with Iraq’s democratically elected government, remove combat troops from Iraqi cities by July, remove all our troops from Iraq by 2012. Yet, the top US Army officer says US is prepared to remain in Iraq for a decade, despite an agreement to withdraw forces by 2012, talking about Army Chief of Staff, General George Casey. He was speaking in Washington. He suggested the US could remain in Iraq longer than pledged because of global events. He said, quote, “Global trends are pushing in the wrong direction. They fundamentally will change how the Army works.” A decade, he says.

JUAN COLE: Well, but he says “prepared.” And, you know, the Status of Forces Agreement that the Bush administration negotiated with the Iraqi parliament does contain provisions whereby the Iraqi government could ask the United States to stay or to do some things for it militarily. The Iraqi military, for instance, has no air force, so they might need some help. But being prepared to stay is different from declaring that you will.

AMY GOODMAN: Issandr El Amrani, the issue of this speech being held in Egypt, can you talk about — well, President Mubarak was not at this speech — the level of repression, the state of the government?

ISSANDR EL AMRANI: Yeah. Well, you know, like Professor Cole, I agreed with his remarks on the speech, generally speaking. But if you look at some of the issues that were raised by President Obama, such as the issue of torture, which he — you know, he said that this is the ending of torture, the closing of Guantanamo Bay, are policies he enacted early on in his term.

Well, let’s look at how the situation of torture in Egypt — Egypt is considered widely to widely practice torture, as a almost systematic method, basically, of police investigation. Egypt is a country that over the last five years has regressed in terms of political reform, that imprisons political opponents, prevents them from participating in elections.

So the message, because of the location, is a bit mixed, because what Obama is saying is, on the one hand, the United States will not do this, but we will remain allied with regimes that practice the very same torture, humiliation, repression of the opposition. And I think the choice of Cairo makes it fundamentally ambiguous.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask Professor Cole — President Obama laid out a series of topics that he thought were the keys to tension between the Muslim world and the United States. He mentioned the battle over modernity, women, religious freedom, democracy, Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine. He never once mentioned the one word that probably has determined US policy toward the Middle East for decades — oil — and the oil reserves of the Muslim world and the West’s attempt to grab them.

JUAN COLE: Yes, well, that’s true. He didn’t refer to that resource issue. And I have a whole chapter on Islamic oil in my book, in which I talk about this. And it’s very clear that he went to Riyadh just before going to Cairo for two purposes. One was to get advice from King Abdullah about the positioning of his Cairo speech to the Muslim world. The other was to try to get the Saudis to lower the world oil prices, because they’re our swing producer, and they’ve said they want them around $75 a barrel. The US would much prefer they’re lower than that. So, it is true that that particular aspect of the relationship wasn’t brought out by this speech. But it is also a sore point with the Muslim world that the United States has thrown its weight around in the region, you know, insisting on access to those resources and one of the reasons they overthrew the government in Iran.

AMY GOODMAN: And speaking of non-democratic countries, as we were just talking about Egypt, Saudi Arabia?

JUAN COLE: Sure. Well, Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, of a sort that really doesn’t exist any place else in the world anymore. But, you know, what Obama is saying is really more traditional American foreign policy. You can go back to John Adams, who says the United States stands for its values, but it doesn’t go out into the world seeking monsters to slay. And, you know, you really have a choice here of — as a superpower, of dealing with regimes that exist and trying to push them behind the scenes, or going around, as Bush did, overthrowing countries right and left. And do we really want the United States overthrowing other countries?

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Professor Juan Cole from the University of Michigan, also well-known blogger at Informed Comment, his latest book, Engaging the Muslim World; and Issandr El Amrani, who is an independent political analyst.

We’re going to go to break. When we come back, Democracy Now!’s Anjali Kamat was recently in Egypt and sat down with Ayman Nour, who ran against Mubarak for president and then was imprisoned for three years. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: As we talk about reaction to the speech and also hear from other Egyptian voices, I wanted to turn to the case of the former presidential candidate Ayman Nour, one of Egypt’s best-known dissidents, chair of the Al-Ghad, or Tomorrow, Party in Egypt, challenged Mubarak for president in 2005. He came in distant second, garnering something like seven to 13 percent of the vote, according to different estimates.

But Ayman Nour was sentenced to five years in prison in December 2005 on charges of allegedly forging some of the signatures required to register his political party. While in prison, Nour’s case received much international attention, including mentions by the White House press secretary and President Bush, but he was only released in February of this year.

Well, last month, just after he was released, Ayman Nour was injured. He was driving in a car, and a man came up in a motorcycle near him and sprayed flames in his face using an aerosol spray can. Nour has accused elements from President Mubarak’s ruling party of being behind the attack. Last year, his party headquarters in downtown Cairo was burned down.

Issandr, a little more on who he is, as we go then to the piece that Anjali Kamat did with him in Egypt, when she sat down with him in his home.

ISSANDR EL AMRANI: Well, Ayman Nour is a quite popular politician who was a member of parliament for a district of Cairo, who in 2004 formed his own party, a kind of a centrist-liberal party. And for the first time, since 2005 had the first directly contested presidential elections in Egypt, he really took on, partly encouraged by the pressure that the Bush administration was putting on Egypt for political reform, he really took on President Mubarak in his campaign. He came second in the race with about 7.5 percent, compared to President Mubarak’s 87 percent. But that’s quite an achievement in the very tightly controlled political space there is in Egypt. But for his crimes, a few months later, on Christmas Day 2005, in fact, he was convicted, in prison, and he only recently got out earlier this year.

AMY GOODMAN: And was burned.

ISSANDR EL AMRANI: And a few days ago, indeed, he was burned in an attack on the street. Someone threw some chemical products on his face. Part of his skin was damaged, some of his hair also.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go for a moment —-

ISSANDR EL AMRANI: [inaudible] -—

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go for a few minutes to Anjali’s interview with him. Anjali Kamat had been in Gaza, come back to Egypt, and got a chance to sit down with Ayman Nour in his house. And she asked him what sort of role, if any, he thought the United States should play in promoting democracy in Egypt.

    AYMAN NOUR: [translated] In fact, this issue is very embarrassing and difficult for me. The demands on my behalf from the European parliament and the United States allowed the Egyptian government to spread false propaganda about me. They claimed that I subscribe to a Western or an American agenda and not an Egyptian one. This is absolutely untrue and has no basis in reality.

    I cannot rely solely on the American role in promoting democracy and believe there is also a very important Egyptian role in addition to that of the international community, Europe and the US, in terms of pushing the Egyptian regime to take positive steps towards democracy.

    Now, we cannot deny the role the US has played in terms of democratization. But this role has taken a serious beating because of what has happened in Iraq and because of the lack of balance in the ways the US has handled the Palestinian issue.

    The repressive Arab regimes do not want a solution to the Palestinian issue, because they want this issue to remain as an excuse to continue their militarized repression under the slogans of fighting for Palestine, and they will continue to suppress the voices freedom and democracy until this issue is marginalized.

    The United States needs to understand this. There must be a true solution to this issue, a just and balanced solution. And there needs to be a role for the United States that does not support oppressive regimes, because that support only creates an enormous decrease in support from the Arab people, as well as a big loss in the right of the Arab populations to progress, advancement, peace, democracy and freedom.

    We hope that in the coming period the United States will emphasize principles over interests. This is what we have been missing, and this is what we hope we can achieve.

    There are prisoners of conscience in the Arab world. I was among them. In terms of limited political options, I remain one of them. There needs to be a role for all free people to call for freedom of all prisoners of conscience in the Arab world — in Syria, Bahrain, Saudi, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria. In most Arab countries, there is a real crisis. People are hoping that the new administration — and it is a direct administration — takes a different position than the previous administration.

    ANJALI KAMAT: Ayman Nour, what are your expectations of President Obama?

    AYMAN NOUR: [translated] There’s no doubt that we have a special enthusiasm for the new American president, as does much of the rest of the world. Personally, my enthusiasm has to do with the fact that I think we are of the same generation, more or less the same age, and belong to the same kind of political culture. Also, by chance, his election slogans of change and “Yes, we can,” these were the same slogans I raised in my presidential campaign in 2005.

    All these similarities are encouraging, but we also recognize that this is the President of the United States of America and not the president of the world or the Arab world or Egypt. And we realize that he has certain calculations. But we hope that principles can win over interests. If he advances on the basis of principle, it will lead to the realization of long-term permanent interests. If, on the other hand, it’s the short-term interests that win out, that will worsen the image of the United States among our people and lead to a far greater loss of support for the US.

    ANJALI KAMAT: You were arrested four years ago. Can you describe the circumstances of your arrest and why you think you were arrested?

    AYMAN NOUR: [translated] I was arrested after entering the presidential elections, in which I was a runner-up to President Mubarak. The publicly announced reasons for my arrest are laughable and pathetic. They claimed that the documents used to found my party were forged and that some of the signatures presented were forged. The law just requires fifty signatures. We had over 5,200 signatures. Also, these signatures were in the regime’s possession; they were not with me. So we changed some of the signatures and also gave them copies of the original signatures.

    But I was sentenced to five years in jail. I spent four years in prison. From the beginning, it was clear that the goal was to drive me away from politics and kill the party that I founded, the Ghad Party. Ghad is a young liberal party and project. The aim was to destroy Ghad, a liberal party, and me as the leader. But they did not succeed on both counts, as proven by the widespread popular reception I received and still receive in most of the provinces of Egypt. Just yesterday, I was in Port Saeed. Truly, the reception has been wonderful.

    I’d like to reiterate that their aim in arresting me was not realized, and I think it’s the opposite that happened, which ended up in our favor and not against us.

    ANJALI KAMAT: Can you talk a little bit about the plans for the future for your party and yourself politically?

    AYMAN NOUR: [translated] The Ghad Party is a rational, liberal, objective and secular alternative to the repressive regime and also is an alternative to the irrational extremist parties. We see ourselves as the third way. We are an alternative that is in line with the moderate nature of Egyptians and with their great spirit, which has been a liberal spirit since before the revolution.

    We do face a number of problems, particularly in relation to participating as a candidate in the elections, which is very, very difficult, and the government has placed several obstacles before me and my party in this regard. We are now rebuilding our party.

    I am, of course, extremely thankful to all who have asked for Ayman Nour’s release, but I hope the demand will now change to focus on the rights of Ayman Nour, because Ayman Nour as a political or electoral project cannot do anything without his rights. And securing my rights is no less important than securing my freedom and my life.

    ANJALI KAMAT: How do you see the future of the Mubarak government?

    AYMAN NOUR: The Egyptian regime is old and has roots dating back to 1952. But for the past twenty-eight years, it has been represented by the same person: President Mubarak. This, I think, is unprecedented anywhere in the world.

    The future of the current Egyptian regime depends on its ability to understand that its role must come to an end, that it must provide a real opportunity for power to circulate among the Egyptians. It has to give the Egyptian people their right to choose their rulers, their representatives, without texts that restrict and frustrate these rights and freedoms to the extent that they don’t exist at all or become some kind of a mirage.

AMY GOODMAN: Former presidential candidate in Egypt, Ayman Nour. He was imprisoned by Mubarak for a number of years, just came out, for three years, sentenced to five, and then was burned when he was driving in his car. A motorcycle pulled up and an aerosol spray can — a man holding it lit a flame and burned his face. We believe that he was at Cairo University today. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, I’d like to ask Issandr El Amrani about the dissidents that were also invited. Not only, apparently, was he invited to be at the speech by President Obama, but several members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other human rights leaders in Egypt were invited. Talk about the Muslim Brotherhood and its role within this long-running Mubarak authoritarian regime.

ISSANDR EL AMRANI: Well, the Muslim Brotherhood is today the strongest opposition force in Egyptian politics. It’s not allowed to run in elections as a political party, but its members run as independents. In the last parliamentary elections in 2005, they won about 20 percent of seats in parliament. They are ideologically close to Hamas in Palestine, very supportive of the Palestinian cause and very suspicious of and critical of US policies in the region under the Bush administration, thus far under the Obama administration, and historically.

The Muslim Brotherhood is — there’s been a lot of talk in recent years about possible engagements of Islamists, and some people have suggested that this is — inviting the Muslim Brotherhood is recognizing its legitimate role in Egyptian politics with the — something that the Egyptian regime may not be very happy about. And, you know, this move was probably also — this is a speech to the Muslim world, also an outreach to the Islamist movements, which are certain to play a role, an important role, in Egypt and the rest of the region, should there be democracy.

But for the last few years, the Muslim Brotherhood has been prevented from participating in other elections, repressed heavily, and is used as a pretext, as a scarecrow, by the Mubarak regime to — notably with Washington — to say that it’s either us or them. And that’s a false choice.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Cole, President Mubarak not being there, how significant is this?

JUAN COLE: Oh, I don’t think that’s significant. President Obama met with Mubarak at the presidential palace before the speech. Mubarak, you know, obviously was blessing this event in some ways. So I don’t think it’s important that he wasn’t there. I think, you know, it attests to his security concerns. There have been assassination attempts on him. It may also be that he didn’t want to be seen as overshadowing Obama as a visitor. Hosting is very important in Arab culture.

But I think the big issues with regard to democracy in Egypt, you know, really have to be addressed by the Obama administration, but I wonder whether it’s not better for them to address them behind the scenes. You know, Condi Rice went to Beirut, and she denounced Mubarak before the last presidential election, and the Bush administration, I understand, put enormous pressure on Mubarak to open up those presidential elections. So he let Ayman Nour out of prison, let him run, let him lose, and then put him back in prison. So, you know, the Egyptian regime is very difficult to strongarm, and it may backfire if the US seems too heavy-handed in this regard.

AMY GOODMAN: Egypt is a place where the US has worked with the government, with the dictatorship, around rendition. Issandr El Amrani, last words on that, kidnapping people off the streets of another country, bringing them to Egypt, where they engage in the torture.

ISSANDR EL AMRANI: That’s right. And as far as I understand it, this policy was shaped in the Clinton administration, is continuing under the Obama administration, unless we stop his extraordinary rendition and the rendition of people to places like Guantanamo Bay or US territory. So if this policy is still taking place, this is again one of the other many ironies of President Obama choosing Egypt. You know, we found out a few weeks ago that Shaykh al-Libi, an alleged al-Qaeda member, was rendited to Egypt, tortured here and, because of his torture, gave a false account of links between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, which was used to justify the invasion of Iraq in Colin Powell’s speech to the UN. And if you look at the [inaudible] —

AMY GOODMAN: And we’re going to have to leave it there, Issandr. I want to thank you both for being with us. Issandr El Amrani, independent political analyst, blogs at arabist.net. And Professor Juan Cole, internationally respected historian and blogger, professor of history at University of Michigan, author of Engaging the Muslim World. Also, special thanks to Anjali Kamat and Jacquie Soohen.

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Enduring Jailings and Attacks, Dissident Ayman Nour’s Ordeal Exemplifies US-Ignored Egyptian Repression of Political Opposition

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