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Arab allies test US 'freedom' agenda

President Bush meets Wednesday with the prime minister of Egypt, which has limited its elections.

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"The way it looks now [the changes] are more cosmetic than substantive,'' says a US official. "We will continue to strongly encourage the Egyptian government to open more political space. It will be hard for President Mubarak to present the elections as meaningful if there isn't viable competition."

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Other close US allies are also keeping tight limits on defense. The government appointed by Jordan's King Abdullah has introduced draft legislation to parliament in recent months seeking to limit political activism. In Bahrain, home to the US Fifth Fleet and where the Sunni Arab King Hamid bin Isa al-Khalifa rules over a Shiite majority that has no senior positions in government, three bloggers were arrested for "inciting resentment" against the government in March.

In Egypt, Washington and opposition anger with the amended election rules has coincided with the biggest crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, the most organized opposition group, in at least a decade. Supporters of the secular opposition Al-Ghad Party also have been attacked, and foreign journalists who were seeking to cover a meeting of 5,000 judges in Cairo Friday were briefly detained. The judges threatened to boycott supervision of the country's upcoming elections unless political restrictions on them are eased.

The last scheduled high-level contact between Washington and Egypt was a visit to Cairo by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice planned for February. Ms. Rice cancelled that visit at the last minute after Egypt jailed Al-Ghad leader Ayman Nour on forgery charges. Mr. Nour was released shortly after and is awaiting trial. "It certainly appears there are forces at work to stack the deck against this guy,'' says the US official, who asked not to be named.

In recent days, Egyptian officials have struck back against what they feel has been unfair criticism, particularly from the press. On Thursday, Mr. Nazief held a discussion with a small group of foreign journalists, and Gamal Mubarak, the President's son, also held a rare press conference. Mr. Mubarak is an influential member of the ruling National Democratic Party and sometimes touted as his father's successor.

Mubarak singled out foreign press coverage of the amended presidential law as unbalanced, calling it "historic" legislation. "This is such a fundamental change that I think some people are still unable to comprehend [it],'' he said, pointing out that Egypt's 19 licensed political parties will be allowed to field candidates in the presidential election. Until now, his father has simply faced a yes or no referendum to retain his post.

"It doesn't help ... when somebody takes a courageous step and the first thing he faces is skepticism,'' says Nazief, who shrugged off complaints that the regimes controls on opposition parties, particularly its refusal to allow the Moslem Brotherhood to compete, is preventing a real opposition from emerging. "We have enough political parties."

Nazief acknowledged that under current conditions, there won't be much of a race for the presidency. He said the process will be "more of a referendum than an election" if Mubarak decides to run.

Mr. White of the Middle East Institute says it's unfair to expect the US to be able to accomplish much on its own, with the democracies of Europe generally silent on the matter.

"The US gets criticized for not doing enough, while everyone else sits on the sidelines,'' he says. "Everyone knows that the region desperately needs reform, the Germans know it, the French know it, but they don't say much because the US is out in front taking all the hits."

Still, White says the US has been naive if it has expected the gradualist change US allies in the region have promised to materialize. "If the White House is angry, why were its expectations so high to begin with? The history is pretty disappointing, related with these kind of efforts ... why would we expect that right off the bat deeply embedded ruling elites would share power? That just doesn't happen."

"The sad fact is if they don't reform, if democratization doesn't make much progress a lot of countries will eventually march down the road to destabilization. But authoritarian states don't have the vision thing," White adds.