Bush Nudges Mideast on Democracy

President George W. Bush places the promotion of democracy and freedom at the top of his agenda as he makes his way through his first extended tour of the Middle East during his presidency. Bush has made stops in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 14, 2008

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates, Jan. 13 -- Shortly before President Bush showed up in the region last week, human rights activist Abduljalil Alsingace tried to deliver a petition to the U.S. Embassy complaining about the lack of democracy in his native Bahrain. He thought he might have some hope, given the strong language coming from the White House on the need for political reform in the Middle East.

But as he tells it, the U.S. Embassy was cool to his plans to deliver a petition, accepting his document only grudgingly after several days of negotiations. Then he was astounded to hear Bush's description of Bahrain as an example of positive democratic reform. "All the wealth and power are with the royal family," Alsingace said in an interview.

Adam Ereli, the U.S. ambassador in Bahrain, disputed Alsingace's account, saying the embassy was happy to accept the petition and sees its job as listening to "all sides of the political spectrum."

Still, the episode underscores the sharp disappointment with Bush among democracy advocates and dissidents in the region, who were buoyed by Bush's clarion call in 2005 for freedom and democracy in the Middle East. They say the White House has backtracked because of a need to cultivate an alliance against Iran with the region's autocratic leaders and, perhaps, because elections in the Palestinian territories did not go the way it had wanted.

Bush is placing the promotion of democracy and freedom at the top of his agenda as he makes his way through his first extended tour of the Middle East during his presidency. At every stop, from Jerusalem and Ramallah to Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, Bush has discussed the issue, although he has done so with politeness and courtesy to his hosts in a region where most of the countries practice some form of monarchy, or rule of one.

Aides said he plans to raise the issue again when he travels to Saudi Arabia on Monday and then to Egypt, considered by many democracy activists to be among the most repressive governments in the Middle East.

Previewing the message to Saudi Arabia, where the royal family wields near-absolute power, a senior administration official appeared to suggest that Bush would step cautiously in discussing reform issues. Speaking on background under White House rules, the official said the administration is taking heart in incremental steps, such as municipal elections.

"This is a conservative society, and it is moving at a pace that King Abdullah believes is appropriate to that society," the official said. "But he's a man who thinks deeply about the future of his country and I think understands that it needs to change."

On Sunday in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, Bush delivered what aides described as the centerpiece speech of his eight-day trip to the region, describing the promotion of freedom as a key pillar of U.S. foreign policy and asserting that "stability can only come through a free and just Middle East."

Bush said he believed that leaders in the region were beginning to respond to this call, citing parliamentary elections in Bahrain, Morocco and Jordan, as well as Kuwait, the country's first in which women were allowed to vote.

He acknowledged setbacks, although he singled out no country for criticism. He appeared to have Egypt in mind when he said: "You cannot build trust when you hold an election where opposition candidates find themselves harassed or in prison. You cannot expect people to believe in the promise of a better future when they are jailed for peacefully petitioning their government."

The reaction in the region to Bush's speech appeared at best mixed, if cynical in some quarters, owing to a widespread belief that the president has practiced a double standard in refusing to recognize Hamas, the armed Islamic movement that won free elections in the Palestinian territories before seizing power in the Gaza Strip last summer. The U.S. government considers Hamas a terrorist group.

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