It was only fitting that the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announces another traditional trip to the Middle East on the same day that the U.S. embassy in Cairo withdraws its tweet advancing the case for Egyptian Comedian Bassem Youssef as he faces intimidation from the Mursi government. The two events, while unrelated, show the degree to which the Obama administration has lost touch with the Arab public, and is focussed on pursuing a risk averse agenda that prioritizes relations with regional leaders.
Kerry is taking his third trip in less than two months to the Middle East this weekend where he will stop in Turkey, Israel and the Palestinian territories. The goals for now are to boost Turkish-Israeli ties after Israel’s apology, and to push for direct talks between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The news on the trip was interrupted by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo temporarily shutting down its twitter account, then reactivating it after deleting the tweet that angered Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and the office of President Mohammed Mursi. The tweet included a link to the U.S. Comedian Jon Stewart’s clip defending Youssef, who is currently under interrogation by the Muslim Brotherhood government.
Out of Sync
By authorizing the deactivation of account and then the removal of the tweet, U.S. ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson has chosen the ties with Mursi over speaking to the outrage of millions of Egyptians. In a way, it’s a missed opportunity to connect with those Egyptians, who see in Youssef’s interrogation a slap in the face of freedom of expression, and a return to the Mubarak’s era of intimidation. The embassy did not only withdraw the tweet, but also rolled back the entire twitter feed to the pre-Youssef case. The updated feed (@USEmbassyCairo) does not even include a condemnation of Mursi’s actions, as if time stopped for the embassy on March 26th and Obama’s visit to Israel.
This is not the first time the U.S. embassy chooses to de-escalate the pressure on Mursi. Washington ignored in the past year Egypt’s opposition demands to pressure Mursi for more inclusive policies, and has gradually adapted to controversial policies he pursued including a constitutional referendum and pushing ahead with Parliamentary elections on April 22nd despite boycott from opposition.
Kerry’s trip appears to be centred around that same traditional framework the embassy is pursuing. In the broader terms, Kerry’s effort is an example of the shuttle diplomacy that his predecessors have taken. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton set a record of 956,733 miles in traveling as the U.S. top diplomat, and prior to that Condoleezza Rice made 24 trips to Israel and the Palestinian territories trying to salvage a peace agreement, until leaving office empty handed in 2008.
Kerry’s discussions will primarily focus on “security guarantees” for Israel in the Jordan Valley and resuming Turkish-Israeli cooperation. These are all key issues for the U.S. interest in the region but they don’t speak to the Arab street. The Peace Process, while still central to regional stability, is no longer a priority for the Arab public. The humanitarian crisis in Syria, the controversial actions of the emerging Muslim Brotherhood governments in Egypt and Tunisia, and the economic decline are more urgent concerns for the Arab street.
To all of those, the Obama administration has no coherent message in the post-Arab revolts of 2011. While the Cairo speech in 2009 brought hope that a U.S. President with an Arabic middle name can finally connect with the public, that euphoria is gone and the mistrust in America’s role and political intentions is alive and well in the Arab world. The U.S. is viewed as too calculated and disingenuous when it comes to addressing critical Arab concerns and defending freedom of expression. Syria’s descent into chaos, and Mursi’s power grab -both taking place despite Obama’s warnings- drive this cynicism among Arabs about the U.S. role in the region.
Kerry could have related more to the Arabs by visiting a Syrian refugee camp while in Turkey, and Ambassador Patterson could have done the administration more service by going to Tahrir square or at the least authorizing one tweet that shows solidarity with Bassem Youssef.
Traditional diplomacy still matters in the Middle East but so does active engagement with the Arab public. Neither the Obama administration’s twitter feed nor its diplomats can afford getting stuck in the old diplomatic structure that chooses to remain hush-hush about popular concerns as it courts vulnerable leaders.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam