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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.

Many activists, meanwhile, say they believe the White House has flinched from aggressively challenging Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. In 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled a visit to Cairo after the government arrested opposition leader Ayman Nour. Egypt released Nour shortly afterward.

But the activists say the White House hardly responded to presidential balloting in 2005 that gave Mubarak nearly 90 percent of the vote but was marked by serious allegations of election abuse and harassment of opposition figures. Nour, meanwhile, has been imprisoned again.

Oraib al-Rantawi, director of the Al-Quds Center for Political Studies in Amman, Jordan, said reformers have lost faith in the White House, while governments in the region believe they can crack down on the opposition without fear of a stern reaction from the administration.

"Nobody believes anymore what Mr. Bush is saying," he said.

Others gave a less scathing assessment. Saeed al-Marouei, 27, an associate at a development firm who attended the speech Sunday afternoon in Abu Dhabi, said that he believed Bush was sincere and that he agreed with some of what Bush said.

But he voiced doubt that Bush's words on democracy would resonate in the region. "You can't expect nations to do things they don't want to do," he said. "We need at least 50 to 80 years to achieve true democracy. But it will not happen overnight."

As he tours the region, Bush has been careful to note that freedom and democracy may take different forms, not all of which will look like an American-style system. He has also praised several of the rulers he has met: At a roundtable discussion on democracy Saturday with leading Kuwaiti women, Bush noted that the emir had told him he did not regret allowing women to vote.

During a stately arrival ceremony Saturday at Sakhir Palace in Bahrain, Bush praised King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa for holding two elections since 2000 and noted that in 2006, a woman was elected to parliament for the first time. Activists complain that the parliament is manipulated by the royal family and say the government discriminates against the country's Shiite majority.

"Your Majesty," Bush said, "I appreciate the fact that you're on the forefront of providing hope for people through democracy."

How leaders in the region are reacting to Bush's message, however politely delivered, is far from clear. Before his trip, a senior administration official predicted it would not go down well in some countries.

White House press secretary Dana Perino, who has sat in on some of the president's meetings, said she believed his message is being well-received. "The idea of more openness is one they have told the president they recognize will help them in the future," she said Sunday.

Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy, said the Middle East is the most difficult place in the world to advance democracy. "Bush had a lot to do with unleashing a debate in the region," he said. "Even when he appears to be retreating from the agenda, he is contributing to the debate."

Correspondent Ellen Knickmeyer in Cairo contributed to this report.

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