RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Here's another issue where activists complain that the Obama administration often speaks with two voices: human rights. President Obama has met with international human rights activists several times during his two years in office. And he consistently assures them he is on their side, though he may not always be able to show it.
Now the protests in Egypt have given the president an opportunity to back up his words with actions. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on how the human rights community grades the White House response.
ARI SHAPIRO: At this time last year, a group of human rights activists from around the world met President Obama at the White House. Egyptian activist Bahey El Din Hassan was part of that group, and his concerns from that meeting have not gone away.
Mr. BAHEY EL DIN HASSAN (Director, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies): We have a lot of excellent speeches, excellent words from this administration, but on the ground we have seen nothing
SHAPIRO: Hassan runs the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. He's in Washington this week meeting with government officials about the situation in Egypt. For two years, he has called on President Obama to put the words supporting human rights into action. I asked Hassan whether he thinks the U.S. has passed or failed the test of Egypt.
Mr. HASSAN: Definitely he hasnt passed this test; and waiting more and more, it would be too late for U.S. to have a role to play.
SHAPIRO: Thats a very serious statement. That this White House says human rights is the core of its foreign policy. And you are saying, on the first test of that, hes failed
Mr. HASSAN: On the ground, yes.
SHAPIRO: The White House rejects that view. This President, like his predecessors, often says the U.S. is pressuring world leaders on human rights behind closed doors. But activists can only judge what they can see.
At a Bloomberg News breakfast yesterday, White House chief of staff Bill Daley defended Mr. Obama's response to Egypt.
Mr. BILL DALEY (White House Chief of Staff): We are reaching out to all sorts of people and organizations in the broader society, beyond just the government.
SHAPIRO: At the same time, Daley said, a lot of this is in the hands of the Egyptian people.
Mr. DALEY: This is out of our control. Even though we like to think at times that we can control everything in the world, and there are some people who think, simplistically, that, oh, we could just tell them to do this, it truly is not up to us and it never has been.
SHAPIRO: The White House is trying to thread a needle, not just between the protesters and Mubarak, but with other Arab leaders who've started to look shaky.
At the White House on Monday, Kent State political scientist Joshua Stacher attended a meeting on Egypt. Last night Stacher told ALL THINGS CONSIDERED that he believes the president could do more to support the protesters.
Professor JOSHUA STACHER (Political science, Kent State University): Twice now, President Mubarak has addressed the Egyptian people; and twice now, about an hour after President Mubarak has addressed his people, President Obama has come out and basically repeated and agreed with how President Mubarak is handling this.
SHAPIRO: Stacher believes there's a disconnect between President Obama's rhetoric and his actions.
Prof. STACHER: At some point, you have to decide who you're with. And every time it's been presented this way, the United States and President Obama have signed up with President Hosni Mubarak.
SHAPIRO: Early on in his administration, President Obama tried to rebuild diplomatic relationships around the world by making a break with what his administration saw as the paternalistic rhetoric of the Bush years.
Tom Malinowski, of Human Rights Watch, believes Mr. Obama may have gone too far.
Mr. TOM MALINOWSKI (Director for Human Rights Watch): For example, by stressing perhaps a bit too much that when it comes to democracy and human rights, the United States is not interested in imposing its values on anyone.
SHAPIRO: That rhetoric has changed. Now President Obama often talks about freedom as a universal right that everyone is entitled to.
Elisa Massimino, of the group Human Rights First, complains that that rhetoric has not improved freedom and democracy on the ground.
Ms. ELISA MASSIMINO (President, CEO, Human Rights First): And, you know, the administration has consistently said that it wants to be judged, not on its rhetoric, but on results.
SHAPIRO: Egypt is showing results but it's not clear whether those results are despite, or because of, President Obama's actions.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.