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Condi in Cairo

Posted by Richard on June 24, 2005

Belatedly, I went to the Secretary of State’s site and read the speech Condi Rice delivered at American University in Cairo on Mon., June 20. Wow. It’s a powerful and moving speech, an important speech, and I encourage everyone to read the whole thing. It’s five pages if you print it, which you should do — not only is it easier to read that way, but you can pass it on to others.

But, what the heck, I’ll provide some big chunks of it here. As you read the words, think about what it must have been like to hear it delivered — the electricity and drama of hearing a black American woman address these words to a (predominantly male) audience of Egyptian Arab Muslims. A few years ago, it would have been inconceivable that any American would address an audience in that part of the world with such words. It’s still astonishing and remarkable.

Note: I’m quoting a lot of text. In the interest of readability, I’m dropping the convention of italicizing block quotes (I’ve been thinking of dropping it anyway; if you have thoughts pro or con, let me know).

Rice started by saying as explicitly as I’ve seen it said that American foreign policy throughout the Cold War, post-colonial period was wrong, and that this administration has broken with that shameful past and embraced a principled, idealistic foreign policy as being both more moral and more practical than the cynical "pragmatism" of the past:

In this time of great decision, I have come to Cairo not to talk about the past, but to look to the future — to a future that Egyptians can lead and can define. Ladies and Gentlemen: In our world today, a growing number of men and women are securing their liberty. And as these people gain the power to choose, they are creating democratic governments in order to protect their natural rights.

We should all look to a future when every government respects the will of its citizens — because the ideal of democracy is universal. For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East — and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.

As President Bush said in his Second Inaugural Address: "America will not impose our style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, to attain their own freedom, and to make their own way."

We know these advances will not come easily, or all at once. We know that different societies will find forms of democracy that work for them. When we talk about democracy, though, we are referring to governments that protect certain basic rights for all their citizens — among these, the right to speak freely. The right to associate. The right to worship as you wish. The freedom to educate your children — boys and girls. And freedom from the midnight knock of the secret police.

Securing these rights is the hope of every citizen, and the duty of every government. In my own country, the progress of democracy has been long and difficult. And given our history, the United States has no cause for false pride and we have every reason for humility.

After all, America was founded by individuals who knew that all human beings — and the governments they create — are inherently imperfect. And the United States was born half free and half slave. And it was only in my lifetime that my government guaranteed the right to vote for all of its people.

Nevertheless, the principles enshrined in our Constitution enable citizens of conviction to move America closer every day to the ideal of democracy. Here in the Middle East, that same long hopeful process of democratic change is now beginning to unfold. Millions of people are demanding freedom for themselves and democracy for their countries.

She then stepped through a travelogue of the Middle East, providing examples — Jordan, Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and ending with Egypt. Some of her descriptions were very positive — justified, IMHO, regarding the Iraqis and Lebanese; overly generous toward Jordan and the Palestinians. But regarding the others, including Egypt, she pulled few punches:

… The case of Syria is especially serious, because as its neighbors embrace democracy and political reform, Syria continues to harbor or directly support groups committed to violence — in Lebanon, and in Israel, and Iraq, and in the Palestinian territories. It is time for Syria to make a strategic choice to join the progress that is going on all around it.

In Iran, people are losing patience with an oppressive regime that denies them their liberty and their rights. The appearance of elections does not mask the organized cruelty of Iran’s theocratic state. The Iranian people, ladies and gentlemen, are capable of liberty. They desire liberty. And they deserve liberty. The time has come for the unelected few to release their grip on the aspirations of the proud people of Iran.

In Saudi Arabia, brave citizens are demanding accountable government. And some good first steps toward openness have been taken with recent municipal elections. Yet many people pay an unfair price for exercising their basic rights. Three individuals in particular are currently imprisoned for peacefully petitioning their government. That should not be a crime in any country.

She made especially specific and detailed remarks about her host country; no pandering here:

Now, here in Cairo, President Mubarak’s decision to amend the country’s constitution and hold multiparty elections is encouraging. President Mubarak has unlocked the door for change. Now, the Egyptian Government must put its faith in its own people. We are all concerned for the future of Egypt’s reforms when peaceful supporters of democracy — men and women — are not free from violence. The day must come when the rule of law replaces emergency decrees — and when the independent judiciary replaces arbitrary justice.

The Egyptian Government must fulfill the promise it has made to its people — and to the entire world — by giving its citizens the freedom to choose. Egypt’s elections, including the Parliamentary elections, must meet objective standards that define every free election.

Opposition groups must be free to assemble, and to participate, and to speak to the media. Voting should occur without violence or intimidation. And international election monitors and observers must have unrestricted access to do their jobs.

Rice then challenged the critics of democracy on a variety of points, including one that we hear all too often from the left (heck, I’ve heard it from Libertarian friends) which just drives me up the wall — the idea that when you prevent someone from oppressing others, you’re "imposing" something on them, denying them their "right" to be an autocrat or tyrant:

Throughout the Middle East, the fear of free choices can no longer justify the denial of liberty. It is time to abandon the excuses that are made to avoid the hard work of democracy. There are those who say that democracy is being imposed. In fact, the opposite is true: Democracy is never imposed. It is tyranny that must be imposed.

People choose democracy freely. And successful reform is always homegrown. Just look around the world today. For the first time in history, more people are citizens of democracies than of any other form of government. This is the result of choice, not of coercion.

There are those who say that democracy leads to chaos, or conflict, or terror. In fact, the opposite is true: Freedom and democracy are the only ideas powerful enough to overcome hatred, and division, and violence. For people of diverse races and religions, the inclusive nature of democracy can lift the fear of difference that some believe is a license to kill. But people of goodwill must choose to embrace the challenge of listening, and debating, and cooperating with one another.

For neighboring countries with turbulent histories, democracy can help to build trust and settle old disputes with dignity. But leaders of vision and character must commit themselves to the difficult work that nurtures the hope of peace. And for all citizens with grievances, democracy can be a path to lasting justice. But the democratic system cannot function if certain groups have one foot in the realm of politics and one foot in the camp of terror.

There are those who say that democracy destroys social institutions and erodes moral standards. In fact, the opposite is true: The success of democracy depends on public character and private virtue. For democracy to thrive, free citizens must work every day to strengthen their families, to care for their neighbors, and to support their communities.

There are those who say that long-term economic and social progress can be achieved without free minds and free markets. In fact, human potential and creativity are only fully released when governments trust their people’s decisions and invest in their people’s future. And the key investment is in those people’s education. Because education — for men and for women — transforms their dreams into reality and enables them to overcome poverty.

There are those who say that democracy is for men alone. In fact, the opposite is true: Half a democracy is not a democracy. As one Muslim woman leader has said, "Society is like a bird. It has two wings. And a bird cannot fly if one wing is broken." Across the Middle East, women are inspiring us all.


Ladies and Gentlemen: Across the Middle East today, millions of citizens are voicing their aspirations for liberty and for democracy. These men and women are expanding boundaries in ways many thought impossible just one year ago.

They are demonstrating that all great moral achievements begin with individuals who do not accept that the reality of today must also be the reality of tomorrow. 

… These impatient patriots can be found in Baghdad and Beirut, in Riyadh and in Ramallah, in Amman and in Tehran and right here in Cairo.

Together, they are defining a new standard of justice for our time — a standard that is clear, and powerful, and inspiring: Liberty is the universal longing of every soul, and democracy is the ideal path for every nation.

The day is coming when the promise of a fully free and democratic world, once thought impossible, will also seem inevitable. The people of Egypt should be at the forefront of this great journey, just as you have led this region through the great journeys of the past.

A hopeful future is within the reach of every Egyptian citizen — and every man and woman in the Middle East. The choice is yours to make. But you are not alone. All free nations are your allies. So together, let us choose liberty and democracy — for our nations, for our children, and for our shared future.

Thank you.

Like I said, astonishing and remarkable. Did you notice she used the phrase "ladies and gentlemen" three times? "Woman," "women," "girls," and "daughter" occurred more than a dozen times. There was no pandering to Muslim "cultural sensitivities," no lowered expectations, no showing respect for barbaric values.

I’ve been a bit depressed and annoyed regarding politics lately — the Republicans’ horrible domestic record, their bumbling and timid defense of the war and foreign policy, the ongoing chorus of negativism and cries of "quagmire" (against all realistic assessments from people actually on the scene), the judicial nominations compromise, the Bolton fiasco, the terrible Supreme Court decisions — it’s been just one thing after another.

Reading Condi’s speech reminded me of what’s good about this administration and why I voted Republican for the first time in eight Presidential elections. Reading Condi’s speech made me feel good and hopeful and proud. And filled my eyes with tears.

Thank you, Condi!

Addendum: Ideas have consequences. Two days after her speech:


Hundreds of Egyptian activists denounced President Hosni Mubarak’s rule during a rally in Cairo yesterday. Thousands of people lined the streets and watched from windows and balconies.

© 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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