Bush gets silent treatment in Egypt on ’freedom agenda’

Bush gets silent treatment in Egypt on ’freedom agenda’

Promoting what he calls his “freedom agenda” at the end of a six-nation, eight-day tour of the Middle East, President Bush gently prodded Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Wednesday to pursue more democratic reforms in his country.

“Egypt can play a role in the freedom and justice movement,” Bush told Mubarak, the two facing one another in the palm-gardened courtyard of a posh Red Sea resort after an earlier private meeting. “You have taken steps … and my hope is that the Egyptian government will build on these important steps.”

The Egyptian leader stood silently, wearing a reserved smile as Bush praised Egypt for according more rights to women than other Arab states on his itinerary. Left unmentioned was that the government of Mubarak, who has ruled for 26 years, has been roundly criticized recently for arresting opposition leaders.

The White House — publicly, at least — said it found Mideast leaders receptive to its promotion of democracy in sessions that Bush held on his trip, from Israel and the West Bank to the Persian Gulf to his final stop in Sharm el-Sheik.

Yet, when pressed about this, the leaders of some U.S.-allied Arab nations along the president”s path have employed the most diplomatic terms possible to change the subject.

The Bush administration said the president tried to press the agenda — articulated during his re-election inaugural address — as a contest between democracy and tyranny — in Saudi Arabia, where women can neither vote nor drive. He discussed it in Kuwait, where he met with women only recently given the right to vote. And he talked about it in Bahrain, where only one woman has been elected to parliament.

“In my country, we speak of these developments as the advance of freedom,” Bush said during what his aides labeled the signature speech of the trip, staged in the economically and socially advanced Persian Gulf port of Abu Dhabi. “Others may call it the advance of justice.”

Arab reaction to agenda
But it is not an agenda that Arab leaders have been eager to address. Appearing at a news conference Tuesday night in Riyadh with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Saud al-Faisal faced a question about human rights in the oil-producing kingdom.

A reporter asked “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 its hotel for most of the two-day stay, followed up by saying: “This is always an issue on the president”s agenda, and this trip has been no different. … Prince Saud and I have had a discussion of continuing that and deepening that discussion.”

In Sharm el-Sheik, Bush made progress on another part of his agenda when Mubarak lent his voice to leaders supporting the Bush administration”s push for a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians this year.

“We are keen on supporting peace efforts. We are ready, hand-in-hand with the United States of America and the Quartet [of international leaders] and all other regional stakeholders … to put an end to this Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Mubarak said.

Bush, in turn, reiterated his commitment to push the negotiations, an issue many Arab leaders raised during his trip. “When I say I”m coming back to stay engaged, I mean it,” said Bush, who plans to return for Israel”s 60th anniversary in May.

Mubarak has led this nation of nearly 80 million, the most populous Arab state, since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981. He has been reconfirmed in four referendums since then.

Opposition parties first were allowed to challenge Mubarak and his National Democratic Party in the 2005 elections. Mubarak was re-elected, by the state”s count, with 88 percent of the vote. The rival Muslim Brotherhood achieved a 20-percent minority to become the largest opposition faction.

Mubarak”s main challenger in the election, Ayman Nour, was arrested after the elections, an action previously criticized by Bush. Egyptian authorities also have imprisoned hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members in recent months, and last fall an Egyptian court sentenced editors of four newspapers to a year in prison for defaming Mubarak and his ruling party.

Relations have cooled
In the joint appearance, Mubarak spoke of the importance of Egypt”s relationship with the U.S., from which Egypt receives $2 billion a year in aid. But perhaps reflecting cooler relations recently between the two nations, Bush spent only several hours in the Egyptian resort before departing for Washington.

At the news conference, Bush, acknowledging the “advice” Mubarak gave him, commended him for Egypt”s respect for women. “I appreciate the long tradition you”ve had for a free and vibrant society,” Bush said.

The president also underscored a need for respect for “pioneering journalists … bloggers, or judges insisting on independence.”