Six months after U.S. President Barack Obama's widely heralded speech in Cairo, young people in the Middle East are beginning to lose patience with his administration. That's bad news for the hope that the United States might mark a new beginning with Muslim communities. From Marrakesh to Tehran, two out of every three people in the Middle East are under the age of 30. To a very large degree, the future of U.S. relations with the Muslim world rests in their hands.
Last month, I traveled to Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt to speak with some of the region's top young civic leaders about U.S. policies and their recommendations for the Obama administration. I arrived well aware of how important their opinions are; wherever young people's hopes are overwhelmed by frustrations -- whether the inability to land a job or the visceral sense that theirs is a world of repression and injustice -- the United States and its allies will be less secure. And here's what I heard: While the president's election and speech in Cairo were surprisingly well-received, the administration's glaring lack of follow-up has led to mounting disappointment.
Across the Middle East, Obama elicited surprisingly positive responses in public opinion surveys early in his administration, and Middle Eastern youth were particularly receptive. They saw in his identity as much as in his words the hope of change.
By now, however, disappointment is beginning to set in. The president's inability to rein in Israeli settlements in the months since the Cairo speech is one chief complaint. But there's more. In that message, pointedly directed at the region's people and not just their governments, Obama also raised four key "human dignity" issues: democracy, religious freedom, women's rights, and development. Since then, the administration has done almost nothing to back those words up with actions, a fact that has not gone unnoticed.
To be fair, the United States faces an uphill battle. Authoritarian leaders from Morocco to Tunisia to Jordan, each bent on staying in power indefinitely, have worked diligently to close down rallies, civic organizations, and any hint of political space in recent years. The situation worsened after Washington downgraded its diplomatic support for democratization in the region in mid-2006 after Hamas narrowly won elections in the Palestinian territories. Three years later, Washington finds itself with fewer civil society partners than it might have otherwise had.
Unfortunately, rather than standing up to such authoritarians to try to reverse the tides, Obama seems to be caving to pressure. Strongman leaders such as Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad bet that, because of their importance to U.S. diplomatic goals in the region, they could pressure the White House to reduce its support for civil society groups in their respective countries.