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Bush vision at odds with Arab allies

As Iraqis voted, Egypt was cracking down on political dissidents.

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"Pressure for democracy is very much related to the feeling that there is no threat to the regime, because people still believe that the threats to a regime mean threats to the state and society as well," says Samir al-Taqi, a Syrian political analyst. "As long as the notion of regime change remains on the table, people are not giving democratic change the priority. Even though there is still enthusiasm for democracy."

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Mr. Taqi also points to Iraq's chaos. Though the elections were a relative success, 35 voters were killed in election violence that day, and the war here shows no signs of being over. That chaos leaves many Arabs wary of too much change too soon.

In many countries in the region, the poor turnout of Sunni Arabs - the minority who have dominated Iraq's political classes since the state's formation - is seen as invalidating the whole process. Many Arab leaders, almost all of whom are Sunni, are fearful of what Jordan's King Abdullah has called a "Shiite crescent" extending from Iran through Iraq to their doorsteps.

Salah al-Din Hafez, a columnist for Egypt's government-owned Al Ahram daily, captured the mood of many Arabs, writing on Monday that "whatever the final outcome of the elections ... they lack legitimacy and credibility. First, because the elections took place under the supervision, control, and protection of a foreign occupation force, and second, because the majority of Sunnis boycotted the elections. Without the Sunnis, "the fate of Iraq cannot be decided nor can there be any talk of a legitimate government or a meaningful constitution," he wrote.

Challenge to Egypt's president

Just a day before Iraq's vote, Egypt arrested opposition politician and member of parliament Ayman Nour, who has called for constitutional reform that would set presidential term limits and a free election for president. Egypt says he faces two years in jail for forging documents in an application for his Al Ghad Party to win legal status.

Mr. Mubarak has been proclaimed president in an uncontested referendum every six years since 1980, and faces another such vote in the fall.

"Egypt isn't even remotely democratizing and Jordan isn't either,'' says Joshua Stacher, an Egypt expert at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. "There's a huge disconnect between [Bush's] freedom rhetoric and substantial policy change within these countries."

Though Nour's political party is small, he has won a surprising degree of support in the poor Bab al-Sharqeya district he represents and has been unusually bold in using the media to attack the government. In 2003, Mr. Nour showed up an ally of President Mubarak's in a televised parliament meeting over the issue of the diminishing quality of government-subsidized bread for the poor. He brandished a piece of the bread and challenged the man to eat it.

Three other activists were arrested at the Cairo Book Fair on Friday. The three were distributing leaflets calling for Mubarak to step down at the end of his term and for the presidency to not be handed to his son Gamal Mubarak, who is currently viewed as the front-runner to succeed his father.

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