• January 20, 2008

Bush: Last stop on Middle East freedom tour

Bush: Last stop on Middle East freedom tour

– All along the route of President Bush’s six-nation, eight-day tour of the Middle East, the president has promoted what the White House calls, simply, “the freedom agenda.’’

Bush has pressed this agenda – articulated during his reelection inaugural address as a contest between democracy and tyranny – in Saudi Arabia, where women can neither vote nor drive. He has promoted it in Kuwait, where women only recently were given the vote – Bush met there with a roundtable of Kuwait women. And he has promoted it in Bahrain, which elected its first woman to parliament, still the only one, two years ago.“In my country, we speak of these developments as the advance of freedom,’’ Bush said during his signature speech of the trip, staged in the conomically and socially advanced Gulf port of Abu Dhabi. “Others may call it the advance of justice.’’

Here in Eqypt, as Bush pursues a vision of peace in the Middle East, the president will meet today with the leader of a nation that once lost and then ceded this portal of the Sinai desert and peninsula. President Hosni Mubarak also has ruled here for the better part of three decades, only recently opening elections to rival parties and securing reelection with nearly 90 percent of the vote.The White House – publicly, at least — maintains that it has found a welcome reception to its message in a series of private sessions which Bush has held with leaders from Jerusalem and the West Bank of Israel to his final stop here in Sharm el-Sheikh. Yet, when pressed about this, the leaders of the least democratic nations along the president’s path have employed the most diplomatic terms possible to change the subject.
Appearing at a press conference with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Riyadh on Tuesday night, Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Saud Al-Faisal faced a tough question.

The reporter queried the prince about human rights in Saudi Arabia, asking “to what extent that issue came up during the discussions today between the president and the king, and what the United States said about that, and what the king said about that…’’“About what?’’Al-Faisal asked.“Human rights,’’Rice reminded him. “Human rights?’’ Al-Faisal repeated.:As to reforms,’’ the Saudi prince and minister said, “I think the presence of the president here is not — better than a question about human rights in Saudi Arabia. He has seen the people, he has met with many people. He has been in the Advisory Council, he has met many officials. He has asked many questions. And I hope that he was satisfied with what he saw in the kingdom.’’

Rice, in a nation where the female crew of the White House press charter was confined to their hotel for most of the two-day stay, followed on rights: “This is always an issue on the president”s agenda, and this trip has been no different. The president is interested in and concerned for the course of reform in the entire Middle East, and as he said, most especially with our friends. “Prince Saud and I have had a discussion of continuing that and deepening that discussion,’’ Rice said there.Here in Sharm el-Sheikh, Bush’s final stop before returning to Washington on Wednesday, he will meet privately with Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt since 1981 and first allowed rival political parties to field opponents in the last elections, in 2005.Notably, the Egyptian leader was not expected to appear alongside Bush as he made the one public statement to the press during a brief stay of just several hours here – but Mubarak indeed did stand alongside Bush issuing joint statements about their confidence in the psibility of a peace between Israelis and Palestinians by year”s end — see the Swamp posting above on this. They stood in the palm-gardened grounds of the Red Sea”s Four Seasons.

Bush had stood alongside Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah in press conferences. Here in Egypt, where Bush arrived in pursuit of a peace that he is trying to spur between the Israelis and Palestinians by the end of his term, it was Mubarak’s predecessor who had sought peace with Israel after repeated wars. And Mubarak is among the Arab leaders pressing for a new deal.

Egypt was among the Arab nations which dispatched representatives to the Middle East peace conference which Bush convened in November in Annapolis, where Olmert and Abbas committed themselves to peace talks which have been slow in moving forward – with the latest Israeli attack on militants in the Gaza Strip this week raising new questions about the prospects of framing the outlines of a new Palestinian state by year’s end.

This Red Sea port and resort city which Israel once held, until the Sinai Peninsula was returned to Egypt in 1979 following the Camp David Accords, now bills itself as “the city of peace.”Mubarak has led this nation of nearly 80 million, the most populous Arab state, since the assassination of Anwar Sadat. The president has been reconfirmed in four referenda since then, the most recent in 2005. Yet the rival Muslim Brotherhood has elected members to parliament – achieving a 20-percent minority in the last elections, the largest opposition faction.

Parties first were allowed to challenge Mubarak and his National Democratic Party in the 2005 elections. Mubarak was reelected, by the state’s count, with 88 percent of the vote.During another brief stop in Dubai, the most Westernized of cities on Bush’s Arab itinerary this week, the president met with several “young Arab leaders,’’ men younger than 45 who are said to be cultivating civic networks throughout the region. They met atop the Burj Al Arab, a towering, sail-shaped hotel on a man-made island, symbol of Dubai’s oil-wealth and Western tastes.“This is the United Arab Emirates reforming itself,’’ said Stephen Hadley, the president’s national security adviser. “The focus of these discussions is really on what these leaders have been doing for their countries,’’ Hadley said. “These folks… are on board the freedom agenda, and are pursuing it.’’