Egypt walks out of Group of Eight gathering in Bahrain

Egypt walks out of Group of Eight gathering in Bahrain

, Bahrain (AP) — A U.S.-backed summit meant to promote political freedom and economic change in the Middle East ended Saturday without agreement, a blow to U.S. President George W. Bush’s goals for the troubled region.

A draft declaration on democratic and economic principle was shelved after Egypt insisted on language that would have given Arab governments greater control over which democracy groups receive money from a new fund.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also used the conference to send a message to Syrians chafing under authoritarian rule, saying Washington backs their “aspirations for liberty, democracy and justice under the rule of law.”

Bush hosted a coming-out party for the Forum for the Future last year at Sea Island, Georgia, and the U.S. is putting up half of the $100 million (euro85.5 million) in a venture capital fund for economic development launched at this year’s gathering.

Egypt plants roadblock
The White House had hoped the conference would showcase political progress in a part of the world long dominated by monarchies and single-party rule, and spread goodwill for the U.S.

American officials seemed startled that an ally, Egypt, threw up a roadblock.

Egypt receives nearly $2 billion (euro1.7 billion) annually in U.S. aid, second only to Israel. The country held its first multiparty elections this year, but remains under the firm control of President Hosni Mubarak.

Rice chose Egypt as the site for a widely noted June speech promoting democracy. An earlier visit was postponed in a dispute over the jailing of a democracy activist, who was later released.

The disappointing outcome at the conference followed a rocky summit a week ago in Argentina, when Bush got a cold shoulder from some Latin American leaders, failed to win consensus on a free trading bloc for the Western Hemisphere and endured biting criticism from anti-U.S. protesters and Venezuela’s leftist president, Hugo Chavez.

In Bahrain, tense negotiations in private over the language of a final statement could not persuade the Egyptians. Egypt’s foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, left the session before a closing press conference.

“We didn’t withdraw” from the conference, he said later. “What happened is that the meeting took so long, more than it was scheduled.”

Bahrain’s foreign minister, Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, told reporters the declaration will come up again, perhaps at a gathering scheduled for Jordan next year.

“We don’t want to issue a haphazard decision,” Khalifa said. “We decided we will come back to it one day.”

Many Middle East nations are wary of Bush’s second-term democracy agenda for the region. Some organizations that the administration has tried to engage are reluctant to take money from the U.S.

“It would be a disaster for this region if the region thought democracy is an American idea,” British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said at the closing press conference, where the final agreement had been expected to be released.

“America is a great country but democracy was born in Greece, just across the Mediterranean” from the Middle East, Straw said.

Dollars for democracy
As intended, the 36-nation session launched a $100 million (euro85.5 million) venture capital fund to promote economic enterprise. The fund includes $50 million (euro43 million) from the United States, with contributions from Egypt, Morocco and Denmark.

The conference also started a $50 million (euro43 million) foundation aimed at promoting democracy and political change in the Middle East.

Both initiatives were shepherded by U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Liz Cheney, the vice president’s daughter. She accompanied Rice on a Mideast trip to Bahrain, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and the West Bank.

U.S. officials said the sticking point was a passage in the declaration that pledged “to expand democratic practices, to enlarge participation in political and public life and to foster the roles of civil society,” including nongovernmental organizations, and to widen women’s political and economic participation.

Egypt wanted the statement to stipulate that those organizations, known as NGOs, be “legally registered” under each country’s laws. U.S. officials said the requirement would undermine the purpose of the statement.

Nongovernmental organizations is a term used by the U.S. State Department and others to describe both humanitarian aid organizations such as the Red Cross and lesser-known groups that promote social and political agendas.

Groups covered in the disputed language increasingly are active in Egypt.

Egypt’s ruling party secured the most seats in the first stage of parliamentary balloting last week that was seen as a test of Mubarak’s pledges of electoral reform. The opposition said there were widespread irregularities at the polls.

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