By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 12, 2005 9:38 AM
MANAMA, Bahrain, Nov. 12 -- President Bush's democracy initiative in the Middle East suffered a serious setback Saturday when the Forum for the Future, an international meeting attended by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, ended without a formal agreement on democracy promotion.
In a surprise move, Egypt, which accounts for more than half the Arab world's population and is the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid, scuttled the conference by demanding language that would have given Arab governments significant control over which democracy groups receive aid from a new fund.
Last-ditch diplomacy by the United States failed to get Egypt to budge, and Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit left before the conference broke up.
"We made a very clear case," said a senior U.S. official at the conference who requested anonymity. "There were intensive negotiations. We made it clear it would scuttle the declaration."
Egypt, long a political trend-setter in the region, receives roughly $2 billion in U.S. military and economic assistance annually and has received tens of billions of dollars in U.S. funding since it made peace with Israel.
The Forum for the Future, a joint U.S.-European initiative launched at the 2004 Sea Island, Ga., summit hosted by Bush, may have to wait for an agreement until it meets again in Jordan in a year, the Bahraini foreign minister told a press conference here.
The U.S. delegation tried to play down the damage, but expressed disappointment with a country that has been a pivotal ally on issues ranging from the Arab-Israeli conflict to the war on terrorism. "Obviously, we're not pleased," said a second senior State Department official attending the event.
In an interview, Egyptian democracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim charged that the Egyptian government of President Hosni Mubarak is now holding the region "hostage to its despotism." He said, "By so doing, they leave the field clear for the theocrats. . . . The theocrats still have the mosque." He referred to Egypt's proposed restriction that would limit funds to secular democracy activists and nongovernmental organizations, known as NGOs.
The dispute stemmed from a provision that would have bound countries in the Middle East and North Africa to "expand democratic practices, to enlarge participation in political and public life, to foster the roles of civil society, including NGOs, and to widen women's participation in the political, economic, social, cultural and education fields and to reinforce their rights and status in society while understanding that each country is unique."
Egypt wanted to insert a phrase stipulating that NGOs had to be legally registered according to national laws. Although Egypt initially had support from Saudi Arabia and Oman, all other countries in the end agreed to take out language that would have allowed current governments control over what groups could receive funding.
"In our view and in the view of other delegations, this would have circumscribed NGO activity," said the senior U.S. official who briefed reporters traveling with Rice.
The gathering of dozens of nations -- including 22 Arab countries, the United States, the European Union and others -- nevertheless did agree to set up two new groups to promote political and economic reform. The aid most affected would come from the new Foundation for the Future, which has commitments of more than $50 million to help NGOS, academic institutions and professional associations foster "freedom and democracy" in the broader Middle East and North Africa. The United States has pledged $35 million to the effort.
A second entity, the Fund for the Future, backed by the United States and the European Union, is designed to help small- and medium-sized enterprises to stimulate the private sector and attract foreign investment. Despite Egypt's role in undermining the conference, the new fund is expected to establish offices in Egypt and Morocco to evaluate and recommend investments. The fund will have some $100 million, with the Bush administration pledging $50 million.
In her opening remarks at the conference, Rice lashed out at Syria and demanded the release of all political prisoners, specifically a democracy activist arrested Tuesday after he returned from talks at the White House.
"We continue to support the Syrian people's aspirations for liberty, democracy and justice under the rule of law," Rice said at the opening of the second Forum for the Future, as Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara looked on. "We would like to see an end to the arbitrary detentions of democratic and human rights activists," Rice said.
The United States is particularly concerned about democracy activist Kamal Labwani, who was arrested at Damascus Airport Tuesday. While in Washington, Labwani met National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley.