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Mideast, North Africa Stumble Toward Reforms

The 30 nations fail to produce a final decree after Egypt insists that limits be placed on the non-government groups' freedoms.

November 13, 2005|Tyler Marshall | Times Staff Writer

MANAMA, Bahrain — Foreign ministers from more than 30 countries agreed Saturday to launch new initiatives supporting democratic and economic reform across the Middle East and North Africa but then sank into discord, eventually adjourning unable to reach consensus on the wording of a final declaration.

Although American officials backing the process hailed the initiatives as evidence of a new mood in the region, the diplomatic row that soured the final outcome underscored the depth of suspicion over political pluralism. According to U.S. officials, the meeting broke down when Egypt insisted on inserting language into the declaration that would have limited the political freedom of non-government organizations, a step others refused to support.

When Egypt refused to yield, the meeting adjourned, said the officials, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue. Egypt only recently -- and with reluctance -- implemented limited electoral reform and is concerned about moves that might empower militant Islamic groups such as the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood.

"There are differences in points of view," summed up British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, co-host of the meeting with his Bahraini counterpart, Sheik Khalifa ibn Salman Khalifa.

Before the dispute erupted, leaders agreed to set up a $100-million venture capital fund to stimulate entrepreneurship and support small and medium business enterprises in the region. Offices for the fund were expected to be established in Morocco and Egypt, two countries that put up 40% of the seed money.

With visibly less enthusiasm, they also agreed to spend $50 million for a foundation to promote political liberalization in the broader Middle East, an area stretching from Morocco in the west to Afghanistan in the east. Just five relatively small Middle Eastern states -- Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen, Qatar and Morocco -- contributed to the fund, with the balance of the money coming from Europe and the United States.

Although it was agreed that the foundation's headquarters would be located in the region, there were no immediate volunteers to host it.

Saturday's developments came at the second meeting of the Forum for the Future, an organization established last year by the so-called Group of 8 -- the seven biggest industrial democracies plus Russia -- several other Western European countries and 22 Middle Eastern and North African nations to foster reform in the region. Last year's inaugural meeting of the forum was plagued by Arab anger over the American-led invasion of Iraq and the Bush administration's close ties with Israel.

Both initiatives agreed to Saturday can be traced to Washington. They are part of the Bush administration's contention that U.S. security is directly linked to ending the kind of authoritarian rule and economic despair that fuels public discontent and terrorism in the region.

In her opening remarks to the meeting, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a direct link between Wednesday's terrorist attacks on three hotels in the Jordanian capital, Amman, and the forum's tasks.

"I think it makes even more urgent our work to have an answer to the ideologies of hatred that produces the kind of violence that we saw in Jordan and that we have seen in many countries around this table," she said.

With Syria's Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh sitting nearby, she also singled out Damascus for criticism, pointedly voicing support for "the peoples of Syria in their aspirations for liberty, democracy and justice."

American involvement in proposals such as those to extend the boundaries of political and economic freedom only add to an existing hesitance of ruling elites in many capitals of the region to loosen their tight political control.

On Saturday, Rice, who frequently joins the host nation on the podium at the closing news conferences of large international gatherings, instead sat in the front row of the audience, watching the meeting's British and Bahraini co-hosts field questions. She made no public comment afterward.

Alluding to the poor American image in the region, Straw, the British foreign secretary, noted in his closing remarks: "It would be a disaster for the region if this region thought democracy was an American idea." He then pointed out that democracy had come from Greece.

Although clearly upset by the failure to achieve a consensus on the final declaration, U.S. officials noted progress on other levels. The anti-Israeli Arab rhetoric that dominated the inaugural meeting had diminished sharply, giving way to substantive discussions, they said. As well, they added, the question of whether economic and democratic reform was either needed or possible was no longer an issue.

"It is important to remember where we started," said a senior U.S. official traveling with Rice. "The criticism then was that this wasn't real; there were very few countries that were willing even to discuss these issues and there was press in the region that this was all an outside imposition.

"A year and a half later, there's massive change," the official maintained. "You have all the countries in the region present in the forum and you have an agreement that reform, democracy and civil society are front and center on the agenda in a way that they weren't three years ago.

"You take what's available. You don't wring your hands. Every time you make progress in any area you grab it and you move on from there and you don't stop."

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