First Lady Says Mideast Change Will Be Slow

First lady Laura Bush wrapped up her tour by encouraging a group of Egyptian women to push for democracy. Other countries are
First lady Laura Bush wrapped up her tour by encouraging a group of Egyptian women to push for democracy. Other countries are "not going to have a democracy that looks like ours," she said later. (By Evan Vucci -- Associated Press)
By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 25, 2005

SHANNON, Ireland, May 24 -- First lady Laura Bush, reflecting on her five-day tour of the Middle East, said Tuesday that Americans should be prepared for democracy to spread slowly in the region and resist trying to impose U.S. values on other governments.

The first lady said it is "naive" to think countries such as Egypt can transition from monarchies or tyrannies into democracies overnight. "Especially, I don't want Americans trying to tell people how you're going to go from here to there in no time, because we know that is not easy and we know that it's, in many cases, not possible," Bush told reporters on her flight home.

After visiting Jordan, Israel, the West Bank and Egypt, the first lady said the United States has been on the "leading edge" in promoting freedom in the Middle East, but that lasting change must be driven by citizens demanding the right to vote, a free press and greater equality. "It can't come always from us trying to tell other countries" what to do, she said. "Other countries have totally different cultures, different traditions. They're not going to have a democracy that looks like ours."

The first lady witnessed firsthand the potential -- as well as the obstacles -- to spreading democracy in the Middle East during her diplomatic mission to the region. Her visit to Israel drew protests from some Israelis and Muslims, but concluded with a stop in small town where Christians peacefully run a historic church in a Muslim neighborhood outside Jerusalem. In Egypt, she praised President Hosni Mubarak for planning the first-ever multi-candidate elections, but some opposition leaders criticized her for blessing what they consider an election process rigged to reelect him.

In the interview, Bush reiterated her support for Mubarak's election plan, which would require candidates for office to secure the blessing of the president's ruling party to participate. A vote on a referendum on the plan is expected Wednesday. "I said exactly what I meant, which is he has taken a very, very important first step," she said. "What we all have to see is whether or not this works."

A key to democratization in the Middle East, she said, is a lasting peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians. The first lady said the people of Jordan and Egypt made it clear a peace deal is the most important issue facing the region, and encouraged strong U.S. participation in efforts to create a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel. "I can't reiterate this enough: They want the United States involved," she said.

Bush defended Israel's construction of a security fence, saying Prime Minister Ariel Sharon must defend his people from the threat of suicide bombers and other terrorists. During her visit to the West Bank, the first lady was told by a Palestinian woman how the fence has become a barrier to normalcy for many people living in the West Bank. "I also understand for Israel that if you think terrorists are coming into the county to blow up a pizza parlor every day, then there is a lot of hesitancy," she said.

Earlier, the first lady made a pitch for democracy and women's rights to about 70 Egyptian women, including one member of an opposition group, during a morning speech at the U.S. ambassador's residence in downtown Cairo. She then flew to Alexandria on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea visit with students at a school partially funded by USAID.

Bush, a former librarian, concluded her Middle East trip with a tour of Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a modern library complex overlooking the sea.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company