In vivid contrast to his effusive stopover in Israel, President Bush ended a five-day Middle East trip on Sunday by criticizing Arab nations for political repression and urging them toward economic reforms and women’s rights.
The president’s speech at the World Economic Forum in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheik crystallized an approach that in Arab eyes stubbornly favors Israel over their own concerns and interests. Bush’s language was in many ways supportive, but his characterization of the region was a pointed challenge to U.S. allies, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
“Too often in the Middle East, politics has consisted of one leader in power and the opposition in jail,” Bush said in an address to about 1,500 global policymakers and business leaders. “America is deeply concerned about the plight of political prisoners in this region, as well as democratic activists who are intimidated or repressed, newspapers and civil society organizations that are shut down and dissidents whose voices are stifled.”
He added, “I call on all nations in this region to release their prisoners of conscience, open up their political debate and trust their people to chart their future.”
The mood was markedly different from that on Wednesday, when Bush began his tour of the region by celebrating Israel’s 60th anniversary and receiving a standing ovation in the parliament, or Knesset, for uttering “Happy Independence Day” in Hebrew.
The Arab press condemned what it regarded as the president’s warm embrace of Israel and lack of understanding of the Palestinian cause. The Bush administration has been blamed for such favoritism for years, and Sunday’s comments appeared to underscore the president’s misgivings about the Arab world while lauding its economic potential.
“The president was himself, finally. Maybe because this is the end of his political career,” said Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian Cabinet minister and now a lecturer at Birzeit University. “This is actually him. This is George Bush the human being, not the politician. . . . I always thought he was a Christian Zionist and a fundamentalist ideologue.”
On Air Force One after the economic forum, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Bush’s visit was “very fruitful. . . . It’s not the last time that the president is going to be with these leaders. It’s not the last time that he’s going to have an opportunity to press this agenda forward.
“But it was yet another opportunity for him to make sure that everybody understands America’s very firm commitment to all these goals,” she said.
In his remarks, Bush emphasized that he would continue his push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord before he leaves office in January. The president met over the weekend with Arab leaders, including Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who days earlier had referred to Israel’s statehood as a catastrophe for Palestinians.
“We must stand with the Palestinian people, who have suffered for decades and earned the right to a homeland of their own,” Bush said. “A peace agreement is in the Palestinians’ interest, it is in Israel’s interest, it is in Arab states’ interest, and it is in the world’s interest. And I firmly believe that with leadership and courage, we can reach that peace agreement this year.”
For many in the Arab world, Bush’s seven years in office have produced too few gains to call the trip a victory lap and too many diplomatic failures to evoke a sense of nostalgia.
Hani Masri, a Palestinian columnist for the newspaper Al Ayyam, said, “Bush is trying to wash his hands from his promise. All his Middle East policies have failed, in Iraq, Lebanon and now here. So he tries to appear that he is fighting for democracy just for the sake of his legacy.”
The president’s calls for ending political repression and widening democracy strike many in the region as hypocrisy. In 2004, the Bush administration urged Egypt and other nations to allow free elections and political dissent. But after the Muslim Brotherhood won 20% of the seats in the Egyptian parliament in 2005, Washington fell largely silent when the Mubarak government cracked down on the organization, which the U.S. and Egypt feared would inspire other Islamist movements.
The Bush administration has relied on the support of Egypt and Saudi Arabia -- countries with poor human rights records that frequently jail political opponents -- to help contain Iran and bring stability to Iraq and Lebanon.
U.S. policy has become further complicated with the growing appeal of the militant groups Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Analysts here said that simply put, Bush’s call for democracy is rhetoric that runs contrary to the White House’s interests.
“Bush used strong words and leveled a harsh criticism against Arab governments, but this is nothing but public criticism,” said Amr Shobaki, an analyst with Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “His talk about democracy is part of a public relations discourse. . . . There is no real intention or mechanism to pressure those regimes to embark on democratization.”
National security advisor Stephen Hadley characterized Bush’s tone as “one of optimism about what is possible in the Middle East; that the transformation to freedom, democracy, open markets and prosperity that occurred in Asia and Europe in the 20th century is possible in the Middle East in the first half of the 21st century.”
“The speech makes clear that to do this there needs to be economic reform . . . and then of course the promotion of freedom,” Hadley said.
Ahmed Thabet, an analyst at Cairo University, said Bush’s speech would “increase the tensions in the region and jeopardize U.S. interests.”
He added: “It is Bush’s policies that made those groups [Hamas and Hezbollah] stronger. . . . They evolved to resist the Israeli occupation.”
Although parts of the speech read like a lecture to Arab governments, Bush also offered praise. He cited Egypt, whose 80-year-old President Mubarak is facing labor unrest and protests over inflation, for reforms that have led to economic growth. But he also said Egypt, which receives about $2 billion in annual U.S. aid, cannot achieve permanent prosperity unless it undergoes political reform. Bush reportedly spoke to Mubarak about jailed political activist Ayman Nour.
“Nations across the region have an opportunity to move forward with bold and confident reforms -- and lead the Middle East to its rightful place as a center of progress and achievement,” Bush said. “We have seen the stirrings of reform from Morocco and Algeria to Jordan and the Gulf states. . . . America appreciates the challenges facing the Middle East. Yet we also appreciate that the light of liberty is beginning to shine.”
Challenging nations such as Saudi Arabia that discriminate against women, Bush urged greater women’s rights as a “matter of morality and of basic math. No nation that cuts half its population from opportunities will be as productive or as prosperous as it could be. Women are a formidable force, as I have seen in my own family and my own administration.”
Times staff writer Ashraf Khalil in Jerusalem and Noha El-Hennawy in The Times’ Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.