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Will Mr. Obama in Egypt Engage Autocrats or a New Generation?

Thursday, May 28, 2009; A18

PRESIDENT OBAMA'S decision to deliver an address to the Muslim world from Egypt next week has raised expectations that are as varied as they are inflated. Many Arabs insist that the president should spell out a detailed prescription for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Others would like to see him distinguish mainstream Islam from the extremism represented by al-Qaeda. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, like other Arab Sunni autocrats, wants Mr. Obama to make clear that the United States will prevent Shiite Iran from gaining hegemony over the region.

Then there are the people across the Muslim world who feel wounded by Mr. Obama's very choice of locale. One of Egypt's foremost democratic dissidents, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, published an article on the opposite page in December urging Mr. Obama to choose Indonesia or Turkey, both modernizing liberal democracies, for his address, arguing that "democracy should be central to Obama's message -- and to his choice of where to deliver it." Mr. Mubarak's ruling party responded by bringing criminal charges against Mr. Ibrahim -- adding to a host of previous charges and an outstanding prison sentence that have kept the 70-year-old professor in exile since 2007.

On Monday, just 10 days before Mr. Obama's arrival, Mr. Ibrahim's conviction was overturned, and most of the charges against him were dropped. That -- and the release from prison in February of Ayman Nour, another leading democratic dissident -- spared Mr. Obama from the potential embarrassment of honoring a Muslim regime even as it was persecuting its most pro-American opponents. But Mr. Mubarak's concessions should not prevent Mr. Obama from raising human rights and democracy in his address. If the past decade has proved anything, it is that real partnership between the United States and the Muslim world will require the common embrace of values such as freedom of speech and religion, free elections, and the renunciation of torture.

So far the Obama administration has stoutly resisted that lesson -- partly because of a misguided reaction to the failures of the Bush administration. Yet if it chooses to uncritically embrace autocrats such as Mr. Mubarak -- as it has so far -- the administration will merely repeat the failures of earlier U.S. administrations, which for decades propped up Arab dictators and ignored their human rights abuses, only to reap the harvest represented by al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. It will accomplish the opposite of what Mr. Obama intends, by alienating a young generation of Arabs and Muslims that despises the old order and demands the freedoms that have spread everywhere else in the world.

Contrary to what Mr. Obama is being told by the likes of the 81-year-old Mr. Mubarak, that rising generation doesn't want to hear more rhetoric about the Middle East "peace process" or a jeremiad directed at Iran. What will inspire it is the news that a new U.S. president shares its aspirations for religious pluralism, secular education, more rights for women, a modern market economy -- and the right to elect a dynamic new leader such as Barack Obama. The president should speak to those Muslims -- not to the strongman who invited him.

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