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.
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.
"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."
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.