Democracy Activists Disappointed in Bush

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.

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By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 17, 2008

CAIRO, Jan. 16 -- President Bush on Wednesday ended a Middle East tour that political activists saw as lacking the strong calls for democratization made earlier in his administration, disappointing those once encouraged by the statements of American leaders. In Egypt and elsewhere, people are growing more concerned with food than with rights.

"Where is democracy now?" demanded Hibba Hanaty, a 42-year-old homemaker, at a political rally early this week in Cairo that drew only dozens of demonstrators, instead of the thousands who turned out in 2005, when the United States was pushing authoritarian Arab governments toward free elections.

Riot police at the rally, their transparent face shields tilted up on their helmets, outnumbered demonstrators. Some of the officers leaned in, curiously, to hear Hanaty's words.

"Everything is so expensive," Hanaty said. She cradled a toddler, her son, whose life has encompassed the rise and fall of Egypt's democracy movement.

On Wednesday, after discussions with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Bush commended him for progress. "You have taken steps toward economic openness . . . and political reforms," Bush said.

But Hisham Kassem, an Egyptian political activist who last year received a U.S. National Endowment for Democracy award, was left dispirited by Bush's tour. The year 2005 "was the best year in my life, politically. . . . Our hopes were way up there," Kassem said. "But -- it was just another story."

Anger grew in his voice. "Bush, as far as American foreign policy vis-a-vis democracy, civil rights, is right back to square one," Kassem added. "This trip marks it."

As hopes for democratic change fade in the Middle East, demands for economic improvements have grown stronger. Inflation, caused in part by rising oil prices, is making life harder for the poor in much of the region.

Egyptian workers launched more than 300 strikes over the past year to demand higher wages or lower prices. Unlike the political protests now, the wage strikes have drawn thousands of people, sometimes tens of thousands.

In 2005, Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice helped create as much of a democratic fervor as the Middle East had ever seen, democracy activists said. Rice vowed support for "the democratic aspirations of all people."

Arab governments and peoples took notice. Egypt, where Mubarak has held power for 2¿ decades, allowed other candidates to challenge him in the 2005 presidential election. Observers regarded the first rounds of parliamentary elections that year as fair.

But Islamic parties shocked many with strong showings in 2005 and 2006 elections in the Palestinian territories, Egypt and Lebanon.


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