Mideast democracy summit ends in disagreement over declaration

Mideast democracy summit ends in disagreement over declaration


MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) – A Mideast democracy and development summit ended in rancour Saturday over the wording of a draft declaration on democratic and economic principles.

The conference did adopt two initiatives that are part of U.S. President George W. Bush’s push to expand political freedom in a region dominated by monarchies and effective single-party rule.

The democratic and economic principles declaration was scuttled after Egypt insisted on language that would have given Arab governments greater control over charitable and good-government organizations.

The conference was hosted by the Group of Eight economic giants and Arab nations.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice used the start of the conference earlier Saturday to criticize political repression in Syria and call for the release of political prisoners there.

“We continue to support the Syrian people’s aspirations for liberty, democracy, and justice under the rule of law,” Rice said.

Participants in the Forum for the Future session announced a $100 million US fund to promote economic enterprise in a region where populations are growing and unemployment is often high for young men.

The fund includes $50 million from the United States, with contributions from Egypt, Morocco and Denmark.

“For democracy to achieve lasting and sustainable success, it must also be nurtured by a vibrant economy and an ever growing middle class,” Rice said at the outset, noting that some 50 million to 100 million young people will enter the job market across the Middle East and neighbouring countries in North Africa over the next five to 10 years.

The conference also launched a $50 million foundation aimed at promoting democracy and political reform in the Middle East.

Both initiatives were shepherded by U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Liz Cheney, the vice-president’s daughter, who accompanied Rice on a Mideast trip that also includes stops in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the West Bank.

Many Middle East countries are wary of Bush’s second-term democracy agenda in the region, and some organizations the administration has tried to engage are reluctant to take State Department funding.

Egyptian delegates left the gathering early, after discussions on the final statement broke off.

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

Egypt wanted the statement to stipulate that non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, be “legally registered,” under each country’s laws, a requirement that U.S. officials said would defeat the purpose of the statement.

Non-governmental 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.

Bahrain’s Foreign Minister, Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, told reporters the declaration will come up again, perhaps at another Forum for the Future gathering next year.

“We decided we will come back to it one day,” he said.

Groups covered in the disputed language are increasingly active in Egypt, which held its fist multiparty elections this year but remains under the firm control of President Hosni Mubarak.

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.

According to official results announced Friday by the election committee, the ruling National Democratic Party won 26 seats and the Muslim Brotherhood took four.

The opposition said there were widespread irregularities at the polls, which were hailed by official state media as Egypt’s freest balloting in decades.

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


 The Canadian Press