Democracy Activists Disappointed in Bush

Democracy Activists Disappointed in Bush

President Bush on Wednesday ended a Middle East tour that political activists saw as lacking the strong calls for democratization made earlier in his administration, disappointing those once encouraged by the statements of American leaders. In Egypt and elsewhere, people are growing more concerned with food than with rights.

“Where is democracy now?” demanded Hibba Hanaty, a 42-year-old homemaker, at a political rally early this week in Cairo that drew only dozens of demonstrators, instead of the thousands who turned out in 2005, when the United States was pushing authoritarian Arab governments toward free elections.

Riot police at the rally, their transparent face shields tilted up on their helmets, outnumbered demonstrators. Some of the officers leaned in, curiously, to hear Hanaty”s words.

“Everything is so expensive,” Hanaty said. She cradled a toddler, her son, whose life has encompassed the rise and fall of Egypt”s democracy movement.

On Wednesday, after discussions with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Bush commended him for progress. “You have taken steps toward economic openness . . . and political reforms,” Bush said.

But Hisham Kassem, an Egyptian political activist who last year received a U.S. National Endowment for Democracy award, was left dispirited by Bush”s tour. The year 2005 “was the best year in my life, politically. . . . Our hopes were way up there,” Kassem said. “But — it was just another story.”

Anger grew in his voice. “Bush, as far as American foreign policy vis-a-vis democracy, civil rights, is right back to square one,” Kassem added. “This trip marks it.”

As hopes for democratic change fade in the Middle East, demands for economic improvements have grown stronger. Inflation, caused in part by rising oil prices, is making life harder for the poor in much of the region.

Egyptian workers launched more than 300 strikes over the past year to demand higher wages or lower prices. Unlike the political protests now, the wage strikes have drawn thousands of people, sometimes tens of thousands.

In 2005, Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice helped create as much of a democratic fervor as the Middle East had ever seen, democracy activists said. Rice vowed support for “the democratic aspirations of all people.”

Arab governments and peoples took notice. Egypt, where Mubarak has held power for 2? decades, allowed other candidates to challenge him in the 2005 presidential election. Observers regarded the first rounds of parliamentary elections that year as fair.

But Islamic parties shocked many with strong showings in 2005 and 2006 elections in the Palestinian territories, Egypt and Lebanon.

Angered by U.S. policy toward Iraq and the Palestinians, Arab activists never gave Bush much credit for his democratization pressure. But they noticed when it slackened.

Middle East democracy activists these days say they wonder whether the United States has returned to the formula that Rice renounced in 2005: valuing the stability of autocratic Arab governments over the uncertainty of elected ones.

“We”re already believers in what we”re doing. But is there a partner there? Or are we alone in this now?” asked Rola Dashti, a candidate in Kuwait“s 2006 elections, the first in which women there could vote, in a telephone interview from Kuwait City. Bush met with Dashti and other female political leaders in Kuwait during his trip.

On Wednesday in Sharm el-Sheikh, Bush made no public mention of Ayman Nour, the politician jailed by Egypt after he challenged Mubarak in the 2005 election, finishing a distant second. Nour”s supporters accuse the government of trumping up the charges — forging election petitions — that sent Nour to prison.

Bush also made no public mention of human rights in Egypt, a country where complaints of police torture remain widespread.

In parliamentary elections this summer, riot police openly blocked voters in some opposition areas from entering polling stations. Authorities jailed Egyptian newspaper editors and bloggers for criticizing Mubarak, 79, or speculating on the state of his health.

Activists also accuse Mubarak”s National Democratic Party of manipulating constitutional changes since the 2005 elections to ensure that only his party can field a viable candidate for president. Mubarak”s son, Gamal, is seen as his most likely successor.

Bush spoke more forcefully on human rights while in the United Arab Emirates. Egyptians saw references to Egypt, and Nour, when Bush said, “You cannot build trust when you hold an election where opposition candidates find themselves harassed or in prison.

“You cannot expect people to believe in the promise of a better future when they are jailed for peacefully petitioning their government,” he added. “And you cannot stand up a modern and confident nation when you do not allow people to voice their legitimate criticisms.”

But activists said Bush was settling for less when he declined in the same speech to repeat the strong demands of the past for free elections — emphasizing instead the importance of civic institutions such as universities and places of worship.

With Egypt”s political opposition crushed since 2005, only Islamic movements, which already maintain networks of clinics and other aid for Egypt”s poor, are positioned to exploit the economic unrest if they choose, said Kassem, the democracy activist.

Egypt “is failing economically,” he said. “It”s a question of time before there is a disaster, and when that happens, the only alternative in front of the people is the Brotherhood,” he said, referring to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is officially outlawed but tolerated within limits.

“This is what will shake the Mubarak regime,” Kassem added. “Not the politicians.”

Many here remember one central fact about the breaking point of the poor: Egyptians have risen up by the millions only once in recent decades — in 1977, over rising bread prices.

On Monday night, protester Abdel Aziz el-Hosseiny thought back on the crowds of 2005, and 1977, as the few dozen other demonstrators with him melted away.

As a college student in 1977, Hosseiny watched as homemakers and shopkeepers joined students and workers to force the government to roll back bread prices.

In 2005, he was a leader of Egypt”s democracy coalition. He watched the coalition draw thousands during the height of international pressure, then watched it all fall apart because of government reprisals and internal divisions.

“I”m hopeful it will all come back,” Hosseiny said as the only other remaining protester — a man dressed as the Grim Reaper — made his exit. Riot police, the last to go, got into blue vans.

“But not only to change the bread prices,” Hosseiny said. “To change the government.”