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Irshad Manji

The trouble with Cairo Add to ...

Barack Obama has speech problems.

True, he delivers a message mellifluously. But even before giving a major address to the Muslim world this Thursday, America's communicator-in-chief sounds confused.

Consider his choice of setting. Cairo, according to White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, "in many ways represents the heart of the Arab world." Confusion No. 1: Arabs and Muslims are interchangeable.

They're not. Fewer than 20 per cent of Muslims live in the Middle East. Cairo is no more the heart of the Muslim world than Jakarta is.

Indeed, Indonesia would have been far richer soil for this occasion. It's the most populous Muslim country, boasting as many believers as the entire Arab region. It's a crucible of religious moderation; a national election in April affirmed the upper hand of secular parties.

And, despite Mr. Obama's early childhood in Jakarta, Indonesia remains peripheral in the world's imagination. That could have been fixed. Isn't inclusion - making the marginal mainstream - what the Obama presidency is all about?

Maybe this missed opportunity will be compensated by content. But what could Mr. Obama say that would show respect to his authoritarian Egyptian hosts while reflecting the challenges he issued to Muslim dictators only months ago?

In his inaugural speech on Jan. 20, the President all but named Egypt's Hosni Mubarak when enunciating this line: "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history ..."

To be sure, Mr. Obama immediately added that "we will extend a hand if you unclench your fist." Presumably, he meant that governing thugs must loosen the vice-grip on their own populations if they're to enjoy America's favour.

If so, Mr. Obama's outreach is that much more confused. In recent years, Cairo has become ground zero for vicious crackdowns on young democracy activists. I've witnessed village boys, recruited by the Mubarak regime, idling in mammoth green patrol wagons as they await cues from Cairo police. Their job? To assault demonstrators who are peacefully demanding political reform.

Last year, an Egyptian protester wrote me in desperation. "Do you know," he reported, "that a girl was arrested because she made a group on Facebook, calling for a strike, and a famous journalist was jailed because he said that Mubarak might be ill since he didn't show up at a ceremony? Sometimes I dare to ask, while I am hiding in the dark, is there hope for us?"

Only two weeks ago, a similar e-mail appeared in my inbox from a student at Cairo's Al-Azhar University, which is playing co-host to Mr. Obama and his speech. "No one here [is]using his mind," the student of sharia lamented. "I can't say what I think, feel or want."

These voices capture a spirit of openness that Mr. Obama claims to embrace. Yet, he's repudiating them in a final gesture associated with Thursday's speech: En route to Egypt, Mr. Obama will stop in Saudi Arabia, where another coterie of criminals "cling to power" through the "silencing of dissent."

Obama-bashers may quip that he wants to perfect his bow to the Saudi king, having swooned for His Highness at the G20 summit. But I don't give a fig how the President greets the al-Saud clan as long as he speaks truth to power about his supposedly signature issue: human rights.

"Don't hold your breath," a friend of the White House recently suggested to me. "I don't see human rights anywhere on the agenda." Despite being a supporter of the President and a confidante to one of his top aides, he appeared befuddled. I am, too.

Perhaps all will be clear after the speech. Perhaps the alchemy of a silver tongue and sturdy teleprompter will bring into sharp relief the strategy crafted by a shrewd disciple of diplomacy. Perhaps.

I would simply remind Mr. Obama that his speech comes at the same time as the 200th anniversary of Thomas Paine's death. This British-born American revolutionary foresaw that human dignity is universal. "He that would make his own liberty secure," Paine noted, "must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself." Translation: Double standards protect no one.

Mr. Obama has already picked up on that point by announcing the end of Guantanamo. Doubtless, he'll emphasize that decision on Thursday. But will he hold his Muslim counterparts to the same standards of accountability that he expects from America?

He must, if human rights are, in fact, human and not political. On this, there can be no confusion.

Irshad Manji is director of the Moral Courage Project, a global leadership program with New York University and the European Foundation for Democracy.

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