Arab allies test US 'freedom' agenda
President Bush meets Wednesday with the prime minister of Egypt, which has limited its elections.
Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazief's meeting with President Bush Wednesday comes at a troubling time for the president's Middle East agenda. The administration's calls for radical change in the region are now butting up against clear resistance from its closest Arab allies.Skip to next paragraph
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Some, like the monarchies of Bahrain and Jordan, simply continue to limit political competition. Others, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are cracking down on reformists. Egypt has arrested thousands of political opponents in the past two weeks, while Saudi Arabia sentenced three activists on Sunday to up to nine years in jail for "sowing dissent."
The actions of these close American allies has now put the ball in Washington's court. The US is balancing its stated interest in fostering democracy against the potential harm that could be done to the short-term interests - like fighting terrorism, Arab normalization with Israel, supporting the war in Iraq, and oil - that usually guide its engagement with the region.
While Bush's second-term agenda goals of sowing the seeds liberty and freedom are meeting challenges in some parts of the Middle East, the region is undergoing change. New elections are scheduled for Lebanon without Syrian influence. Saudi Arabia held the last round of its first nationwide polls to ceremonial municipal councils in April.
But how Mr. Nazief's visit is handled could well confirm an emerging divergence between America's commitment to promoting democracy in general terms and an unwillingness to alienate allies with specific action.
When Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia visited President Bush in Crawford, Texas, last month, US officials dodged questions on whether the US had complained about repression of dissidents in the kingdom. Instead, they said the president urged him to increase oil production and praised his support for the war on terror.
Asked if President Bush had complained about the closed-door trial of the three dissidents, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said: "There was a general discussion about the issue of reform in these various conversations over the last two days. I'm not going to get into the specifics." Soon after the Prince returned home, the three men were sentenced.
"The problem with pressing for democracy has always been [that] at some point short-term needs override the long-term strategic goal of democratization,'' says Wayne White, who served as the deputy director of the Middle East shop at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research until March and is now an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute. "Short-term interests and push back from allies always erode these kind of initiatives."
Egypt, the Arab world's largest country and the globe's third largest recipient of US aid after Iraq and Israel, embodies the conundrum before US policy makers. The country has received more than $55 billion in US aid since it signed a 1979 peace treaty with Israel. It conducts frequent military exercises with US forces and is helping the US effort in Iraq by training officers for the new Iraqi army.
Egypt has also, according to Human Rights Watch, abducted and deported alleged terrorists into US custody at Guantánamo Bay and also received alleged terrorists from the US, both under the Bush and Clinton administrations, despite a State Department finding in February that torture of detainees here is "common and persistent."
Because of the alliance to fight terrorism and the desire to reward Egypt for making peace with Israel, the US gives Egypt almost total control over how the aid money will be spent. Policy until now - which US officials say might change - has left Egypt free to deal with internal dissent in a manner of its choosing without putting its cash at risk.
Prime Minister Nazief's visit comes less than two weeks after Egypt passed limited reforms to its presidential electoral procedures that officials in Washington say disappointed the White House because they make it almost impossible for opposition candidates to challenge President Hosni Mubarak's 24-year rule in an October election.