Obama Administration Designing Mideast Policy

President Obama hosts the president of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas at the White House on Thursday. It's the latest in a series of meetings as he tries to put together a comprehensive policy for the Middle East. Besides trying to negotiate an Israel-Palestinian peace agreement, there are other issues that people in the region will be watching.

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President Obama is hosting another Middle East leader as he works to put together a comprehensive policy for the region. Last week, his guest was Israel's prime minister. Today, he meets the president of the Palestinian Authority, and next week he travels to the region for a major address. As Mr. Obama shapes his plans, people in the Middle East are watching very closely, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met over dinner last night with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and she held talks with the visiting Egyptian foreign minister to show the Obama administration is serious about promoting peace.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (Department of State): President Obama and I are fully committed to a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, to a two-state solution, and that we regard Egypt as an essential partner in helping us to realize that vision.

KELEMEN: President Obama goes to Egypt next week, and is putting the final touches on a speech he is to give there, a speech meant to address the broader Arabian and Muslim world. Some activists from the region say they won't only be listening to see what sort of peace proposals he has, but how he will deal with countries like his host, Egypt.

Mr. AHMED SALAH (Democracy Activist, Movement for Change): We are hopeful that President Obama will not forget the people, because all regimes, especially despotic ones, can't remain forever. There is always a time when the people will have to have a say in what's happening.

KELEMEN: That's Egyptian democracy activist Ahmed Salah, who fondly remembers a brief period during the Bush administration when the U.S. challenged autocratic governments in the Middle East to open up.

Mr. SALAH: What former President Bush had done was great for a while, and it is so sad that actually the United States pulled back its support for us because they got afraid - I don't know, with Hamas winning the elections in Palestine.

KELEMEN: When the Palestinian militant group won in parliamentary elections in 2006, the U.S. seemed to lose its appetite for pushing for democratic change. And that was hard on Salah personally. The 41-year-old was one of the cofounders of the Movement for Change in Egypt, and he landed in jail for six weeks in 2006, accused of insulting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Mr. SALAH: I had my share of torture and ill treatment. I was on a hunger strike for 17 days until I almost, you know, lost it. And I was all this time underground on the filthy floor without anything between myself and the stone floor and the insects, except for my ripped shirt and trouser.

KELEMEN: Salah came to Washington to urge administration officials not to drop the democracy agenda. More than 1,300 others have signed a letter making that same case to President Obama directly. Radwan Masmoudi, who runs the Center For the Study of Islam and Democracy, organized the letter campaign and says the president's choice of Egypt for his speech makes the issue even more important.

Mr. RADWAN MASMOUDI (Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy): So I think it's a courageous and daring move, but it's also risky because unless he speaks frankly and openly about the need to open up the political process and to listen to the voices of the people - and I'm hoping he does that and praying he does that. But unless he does that, it will be seen as tacit support to one of the most oppressive regimes in the Arab world.

KELEMEN: Secretary Clinton says she raised human rights issues with her Egyptian counterpart yesterday, but some activists feel the Obama administration has been far too quiet. It's diplomatic outreach to Syria is another troubling factor for Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian dissident who runs the Tharwa Foundation.

Mr. AMMAR ABDULHAMID (Founder, The Tharwa Foundation): If you are only going to talk about Syria's regional involvement and adventurism and forget about the internal dimension, then this will be a major blow to Syrian human rights activists in the sense it will make the regime behave with greater impunity towards human rights activists.

KELEMEN: Abdulhamid says that's happening already. It is, quote, "open season" on human rights and democracy activists in Syria, he says, adding so far, the Obama administration's silence is deafening.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

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