The Arab women, more than 50 of them, sat at round tables in a downtown Washington conference room, rising one by one to tell of their frustrations with politics in their home countries. Avenues to power are traditionally closed to them, they said, and the rare openings seem so small.
Amid questions about waging underdog political campaigns and stories about being the lone woman on a town council, a Tunisian professor asked her American host whether it would be better for women from non-democratic countries simply to stay home.
"No, no!" Elizabeth Cheney replied in Arabic, smiling. She added in English, "You, the women yourselves, are the only way to begin a process that will change that."
The Bush administration believes the time is ripe for democratic progress in the Arab world, and the State Department's invitation to Arab women from a dozen countries and the Palestinian territories is the first of a series of initiatives designed to smooth the way.
In two weeks, the women have collected advice from political consultants -- including the Republican-Democrat, wife-husband team of Mary Matalin and James Carville -- and visited political campaigns in five states. They have talked politics with women who have won, and with women who helped those women win.
A program that began with the session with Cheney, who runs the Arab reform program at the State Department, ends with an election-night party Tuesday and a session the next day with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.
The administration aims to nurture the fledgling program as part of its broader ambitions for openings in the region.
The obstacles are formidable, particularly in the Middle East monarchies and autocracies. Women came to the project from Saudi Arabia and Syria, but also from countries where change is underway.
"It's important to look at the countries where there are impressive gains being made. Bahrain. Morocco. Qatar," Cheney said Saturday. "You see places where the leadership is grasping hold of the reality that political freedom and economic freedom are the key ingredients for joining the 21st century."
The administration faces difficulties, however, not only in setting its agenda but also in announcing it. Powell twice has postponed delivery of a speech intended to define U.S. plans to increase political, economic and educational opportunity in the Arab world.
In September, Powell and his staff concluded that the message would be drowned out by President Bush's anti-Iraq speech at the United Nations.
After rescheduling the address for last week, officials postponed it again, fearing it would again be lost, or seen in the Middle East as a weak palliative at a moment when the administration is pursuing aggressive policies toward Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
U.S. officials said a focus on democracy-building projects and a redirection of aid money to grass-roots efforts can accomplish two things. One is to build a desire and ability to reform authoritarian governments great and small. The other is to soften the image in Arab streets of the United States as a malign power that cares about little in the region apart from defending Israel and preserving access to cheap oil.
"People in my country said you will go and come back and nothing will change," said Ghada El Yafi, a Lebanese doctor and onetime parliamentary candidate.
The women also wanted to deliver their own views to the American government, which many of them believe does not understand the political dynamics of the Arab world. At a session with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, several women challenged Rice on the perceived lack of U.S. evenhandedness in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and said they do not want war in Iraq.
The women's project was hatched after Cheney, who is the vice president's daughter, and her colleagues saw their excitement over women in Bahrain running for office for the first time muted by the fact that every woman lost. As Cheney explained to the group in Washington, the Americans asked themselves why.
One reason, they reckoned, was cultural -- many men would be slow to vote for a woman. But they also learned that the Bahrain candidates had minimal organizations and lacked the skills and resources to run an effective campaign. A light bulb went off. This was expertise the State Department could help provide.
Cheney told the women that the U.S. system is not a perfect model for other societies, but she cited elements essential to winning an American election that would be useful elsewhere: communication skills, message development and, yes, money.
That's how Cathy Allen came to be standing in an M Street conference room, soliciting teaching session requests from 30 women from Jordan, Yemen and beyond. In response, she called out to an assistant, who was writing in Arabic at an easel, "Put down 'targeting.' Put down 'shadow government.' "
"As a woman, you need to have one message," Allen told them as they took notes. "Most people waste money. They campaign to everyone. Stupid, stupid." She advised them to perfect the right message for the right target audience, then reach that many times in a variety of ways.
"That's it," she said. " That's how you win."
Allen, a Democratic consultant who has recently worked with women in Morocco on a U.S. grant, said she was struck by the strength and focus of the women who attended the seminar. "They want to know how to be powerful in their own parties. They want the fundamentals of how you do a campaign plan. They want political consulting as opposed to a classroom exercise."
Indeed, the very first question to Cheney on the very first day came from Feyza Attia, an Egyptian legislator who won her seat by defeating 14 men. She spent her own money to get elected, she explained, but said she understood that American politicians were proficient at raising cash. How, she wanted to know, is this done?