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(Cairo) – President Barack Obama’s much-anticipated June 4, 2009, speech to the Muslim world avoided confronting authoritarian governments directly, but sent a welcome message that Washington would not let the prospect of empowering Islamist parties deter it from supporting democracy in the region, Human Rights Watch said today.

Speaking before 2,500 invited guests at Cairo University, Obama said the issue of democracy and human rights was a major source of tension between the United States and Islam around the world, in part because of the Bush administration’s use of democratic rhetoric to justify the war in Iraq. He pledged, however, that the United States would continue to support human rights and democratic principles in the region.

“For the US to regain credibility, it will have to follow through even when voters in the Middle East elect governments Washington doesn’t like,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “If Obama wants to tackle the issues that cause Muslim ill-will toward the United States, he should take on the region’s repressive regimes, many of them US-backed – including his hosts.”

Obama’s choice of Cairo for the speech was controversial because of Egypt’s record of stifling the opposition, holding tainted elections, and imprisoning dissidents. Obama said that all people yearn for “the rule of law and the equal administration of justice,” adding, “Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.” Obama stressed that the US would “respect the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them” and “welcome all elected, peaceful governments – provided they govern with respect for all their people,” an apparent reference to Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.

However, Obama missed an important opportunity to criticize the state of emergency that has undermined respect for human rights in Egypt, Algeria, and Syria, among other countries. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in 2008 renewed the Emergency Law, in force since 1981, which allows authorities to suppress demonstrations, detain opponents arbitrarily, and try them in special security courts that do not meet international fair trial standards.

On freedom of expression, Obama rightly spoke of the importance of the “ability to speak your mind,” but failed to criticize the imprisonment of dissidents, journalists, and bloggers in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia and elsewhere.

Obama spoke about torture in the context of post-9/11 practices by the United States, noting that his administration has “unequivocally prohibited” its use.

“Obama told his Middle Eastern audience that the US has ended torture, but it would have been better had he also urged governments of the region, including Egypt’s, to do the same,” Whitson said.

Acknowledging the suffering of both Israeli and Palestinian people, Obama pressed both sides to take steps to end their conflict. He said the US did not support “continued Israeli settlements” in the Occupied Territories, and urged Hamas to stop the use of violence. Obama implicitly called on Israel to end its blockade of Gaza, noting “the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel’s security.”

But Obama did not mention the upcoming UN Human Rights Council mission, led by Judge Richard Goldstone, to investigate abuses by both sides in the recent conflict in Gaza. Human Rights Watch said Obama should have used this opportunity to push Israel to cooperate with the international investigation.

“Obama’s made a start in restoring America’s image in the Middle East, affirming US support for human rights principles,” said Whitson. “He’s laid out general principles, but now he needs to be more specific about what Washington expects from its authoritarian allies – that they free political prisoners, end torture, allow a free press and tolerate genuine political opposition.”

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