In a wide-ranging foreign policy speech in Washington on Thursday, Bush said the US strategy of supporting non-democratic Arab leaders over the past 60 years had been a failure and challenged Syria, Iran and even key ally Egypt to adopt democracy.
“Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe, because in the long run stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty,” said Bush, speaking to the National Endowment for Democracy.
Khaled al-Maeena, editor-in-chief of the English language Arab News daily in Saudi Arabia asked how Bush could call for greater freedoms while ignoring Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.
“We in the Arab world believe that if freedom and democracy come in the area, they should come to all, not a selective group,” he said. “We also demand freedom and democracy for the Palestinian people. Then (Bush’s comments) would have credibility.”
The US has a credibility problem
Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat reacted to Bush’s speech by urging the president to underscore his vision for democracy in the Middle East by helping the Palestinians to hold free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections.
“We’ve been trying to hold these elections for a long time but have failed due to the Israeli occupation, and we hope President Bush will help us in creating the right conditions for these elections under his supervision and that of the international community,” Erekat said.
The Palestinian Authority backed out of a promise to hold presidential and legislative elections last January, saying it was impossible while Israeli troops were controlling Palestinian areas previously under self rule.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmad Quraya pledged on Monday to hold the polls next June, a step towards meeting long standing international and domestic demand for reform.
Ihsan Bu-Hulaiga, an economist and a member of Saudi Arabia’s consultative Shura Council, admonished Bush for trying to tell Middle East countries how to run their affairs.
He said Bush would do better by making an example of Iraq and handing control of the country from the US-led occupation administration there to the Iraqi people.
“We in the Arab world believe that if freedom and democracy come in the area, they should come to all, not a selective group”
“I would have really wanted to hear something regarding what they were going to do in Iraq…giving Iraqis gradually more control over their country,” said Bu-Hulaiga, who sits on the Shura Council, a body whose members are hand-picked by King Fahd and which has no legislative powers.
In Egypt, Muhammad el-Sayed Said, deputy director of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said Bush’s call for democracy in the Middle East was legitimate.
But he said Bush had drawn so much mistrust in the region due to Arab perception of Washington’s indiscriminate support for Israel or the occupation of Iraq that his call could undermine real democrats in the Middle East.
“Real, genuine democrats in the region, they just simply don’t trust Mr Bush. They think that the more that the United States plugs this question of striving for democracy in the region, the more they feel that this is damaging to their cause,” he said.