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The Realities of Exporting Democracy

The United States has called for the release of Ayman Nour, who ran as a challenger against the Egyptian president in a manipulated election.
The United States has called for the release of Ayman Nour, who ran as a challenger against the Egyptian president in a manipulated election. (By Ben Curtis -- Associated Press)

"Anytime there's a question, should we say this or say that . . . someone can pull out a copy of the president's speech and say, 'Wait a second, may I quote from what the president said?' " the official added.

Outside the United States, the speech inspired many fighting for freedom but also raised expectations that are hard to fulfill. "All they do is talk right now," said Gulam Umarov. His father, Sanjar Umarov, head of the opposition Sunshine Coalition in Uzbekistan, has been in prison since October. "I don't know what actual moves they take. But they are talking, which is really good."

In other places, the United States has done more than talk. In Kyrgyzstan, the U.S. government funded pro-democracy groups and provided generators to print an opposition newspaper before its revolution. Edil Baisalov, director of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, can quote extensively from the Bush inaugural speech. "The Kyrgyz people are much, much better off today than they were a year ago, and I think the U.S. government should take pride in taking credit for that," he said. "And [it] should never apologize that it wants the people to be free."

In Belarus, another former Soviet republic ruled by an iron-fisted leader, Bush's words also stir hope. "We draw strength from these statements," said Vladimir Kolas, chairman of the Council of the Belarusian Intelligentsia opposing President Alexander Lukashenko. "We understand there are limits to what the U.S. can do. But we do need strong and decisive statements . . . that they will not recognize falsified election results."

The Bush administration has been willing to stay tough on Belarus and others it labeled "outposts of tyranny," such as Burma and Zimbabwe. Bush lobbied Asian leaders at a November summit in South Korea to bring Burma before the U.N. Security Council, and as a result the council had an unprecedented discussion last month. The United States also renewed economic sanctions adopted in 2003.

Opposition activists in Burma said they were grateful for U.S. efforts to highlight repression in their country. But despite these measures, little has changed, and some diplomats believe the situation has deteriorated. More than 1,100 political prisoners are behind bars, according to Amnesty International, and all regional offices of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy remain shuttered.

In Zimbabwe, U.S. Ambassador Christopher W. Dell has been so outspoken about President Robert Mugabe's government that he has been threatened with expulsion. David Coltart, an opposition member of parliament, said Zimbabwe has been on the Bush administration's radar screen, even if not the president's. "George Bush is too preoccupied by Iraq to be personally engaged in the Zimbabwe crisis," he said. "But Colin Powell certainly was a friend of those struggling to bring democracy. It's too early to say whether Condoleezza Rice is focused on Zimbabwe."

Elsewhere, the U.S. hand is not seen as readily. In East Africa, newspapers are filled with columns asking why the Bush administration ignores their undemocratic leaders. After violence spilled into the streets of Uganda's capital when President Yoweri Museveni changed the constitution to run for a third term, Washington was silent. Museveni also jailed his opponent on what critics call trumped-up charges of treason and rape.

In Ethiopia, where 40 people were killed by government forces firing into crowds protesting fraudulent elections, Ethiopians complained that it took months for U.S. officials to speak out. "Does the Bush administration care about fighting terrorism for its citizens or does it care about the political situation in a Third World country like Ethiopia?" asked Tamrat G. Giorgis, managing editor of Fortune, one of Ethiopia's few independent newspapers. "I think Africans are asking that question, and we know the war on terror is more important."

When it comes to places such as China and Russia, the Bush administration prefers private friendly advice to ringing public denunciations. Sometimes it passes on both. Although U.S. officials have said they would like Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who took over Pakistan in a military coup, to give up his army post and govern as a civilian, Musharraf said last year that Bush has never raised the issue with him.

"I know presidents and diplomats are not dissidents and when they say they can achieve more in private talks, they may be sincere," said Lyudmila Alexeyeva of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a human rights organization under pressure from the Kremlin. "But I would still like to hear more. And maybe it will have an effect on our president."

Then there are Iran and North Korea, the two top enemies on Bush's list. The president appointed a special envoy on human rights in North Korea, but Abdollah Momeni of the Office for Fostering Unity, an Iranian student group, wants more constructive help. "If they only make noises about this, or if they think that through military action democracy can be achieved, they are moving on the wrong path," said Momeni, who is appealing a five-year prison sentence. "Military action against a country would dry up the democratic blossoms." But, he added, "more action and less talking is needed."

And there is Egypt, one of the most problematic places for the Bush democracy push. When President Hosni Mubarak agreed to let challengers run against him for the first time, a visiting Laura Bush praised the "wise and bold" move. But shortly after she left, Mubarak supporters orchestrated attacks on democracy demonstrators. The presidential election was manipulated, and a subsequent parliamentary election degenerated into violence and mass arrests.

The arrest of Nour, who won an unprecedented 7 percent against Mubarak, presented a singular challenge to Bush, who promised in his inaugural address to stand with "democratic reformers facing repression, prison or exile." The White House pronounced itself "deeply troubled" and demanded Mubarak "release Mr. Nour from detention."

Nour remains behind bars.

Correspondents Peter Finn in Moscow, Ellen Nakashima and Alan Sipress in Jakarta, Craig Timberg in Johannesburg, Karl Vick in Tehran, Emily Wax in Nairobi, and Daniel Williams in Istanbul contributed to this report.

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