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U.S. democracy agenda in Mideast closed, activists say
U.S. democracy agenda in Mideast closed, activists say
A Middle East tour by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has confirmed to democracy activists in the Middle East what they had long suspected -- the United States has lost interest in democracy for Arabs.
Monday, August 6,2007 00:00
by Jonathan Wright Reuters

A Middle East tour by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has confirmed to democracy activists in the Middle East what they had long suspected -- the United States has lost interest in democracy for Arabs.

By promising to protect friendly rulers in the region against what many analysts see as exaggerated external threats, Rice sent a message that Washington will not ask many questions about how they suppress more real internal threats, they said.

At least in the case of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the Arab countries Rice visited, the greatest challenge to the governments comes from Islamists who are hostile to the United States and would do well in free and fair elections.

"Things have returned to their old course. We have seen how the U.S. administration turns a blind eye to many authoritarian and repressive measures throughout the region," said Mohamed Habib, deputy leader of Egypt"s Muslim Brotherhood.

The United States has said nothing critical of the Egyptian government"s crackdown on the Brotherhood, which advocates peaceful change and has a fifth of the seats in parliament.

"The visit was an attempt to woo the moderate states ... after the mistakes committed in Iraq and the failure of the U.S. agenda to support democracy," Antar Farahat wrote in Cairo"s independent daily Al Masry Al Yom. "That agenda is gone."

Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said the eclipse of U.S. President George W. Bush"s democracy agenda was glaringly obvious in the announcements before Rice"s trip.

"(It was) security, guns and balance-of-power politics... It"s not presented as an agenda for change or new things, but as counterbalance to another set of forces," he said.

The rapid reversal in U.S. rhetoric has been unusual, even under the volatile circumstances of the conflict in Iraq, the dominant factor in Washington"s regional thinking.

In a speech in Cairo just two years ago, Rice laid out an approach which promised a radical break with the past.

"For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region ... We achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people," she said.

The emphasis on democracy began to diminish after the Muslim Brotherhood fared well in the Egyptian elections later that year and even more so when the Islamist movement Hamas won parliamentary elections in the Palestinian territories in 2006.

FOR SECURITY READ STABILITY

Substitute "security" for the closely associated concept of "stability" and the rhetoric has turned full circle.

On her plane to the Middle East this week, for example, Rice said that talks on supplying weapons to friendly Arab governments was part of a policy that was decades old.

"The assistance discussions ... fall in a long line of American efforts in this region going back decades to help assure the security of our friends," she said.

She came with a promise of military aid for Egypt worth $13 billion over 10 years, presented as a new package but in fact a cut on the current level of U.S. aid to Cairo, after inflation.

U.S. officials said the United States was also willing to sell Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states weapons worth billions of dollars, mainly for defence against Iran.

"The Bush administration, with all its talk of transforming the Middle East, is reverting to usual U.S. form: a patchwork policy of constant crisis management, all in the name of the "stability" the neo-conservatives professed to hate," said U.S.-based Lebanese commentator As"ad AbuKhalil.

"These exorbitant arms sales should be read as a last-ditch effort by the Bush administration to keep matters stable for the tyrannies of the region and to reward those who stood with him in his unending wars," said AbuKhalil, who teaches at California State University.

Diaa Rashwan, an expert at the Al Ahram Centre in Cairo, said the U.S. offer of military aid and sales was based on a misconception about the nature of the strategic threat.

"The only ones talking about an Iranian military threat are the Israelis and the Israeli lobby. So this is a direct concession to an Israeli vision, not even a clear American vision," he told Reuters. (Additional reporting by Aziz El-Kaissouni, Alistair Lyon in Beirut)


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