SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt (AP) – U.S. President George W. Bush’s fast-track plan for a Mideast peace agreement got a welcome endorsement from a nation long seen as a key Arab mediator. Bush responded by pulling his punches on the human rights backpedaling in Egypt that has cooled relations with this longtime ally.
Bush on Wednesday closed an eight-day Mideast trip well-fed from several lingering meals with his Arab hosts and upbeat about what even some of America’s closest allies say is an unexpected and ambitious drive. An Israeli-Palestinian agreement has eluded U.S. presidents for decades, and Bush did not put much effort into trying for the first seven years of his presidency. Bush had a message for skeptical Arab states whose help he needs to make any accord stick and who doubt the president’s intention to personally shepherd a deal. “I mean what I’m saying,” Bush said.
Meanwhile, Syria said that the main aim of Bush’s Mideast tour was to scare Persian Gulf countries into buying weapons by portraying Iran as a threat.
The U.S. has offered to sell $20 billion (¤13.52 billion) of advanced weaponry to Arab allies, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, to bolster their defenses against Iran, a close ally of Syria.
In a brief appearance with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Bush dealt gently with the pace of political reform in Egypt, the issue that has most distanced his administration from this historical partner, the first Arab state to make peace with Israel and the recipient of the most U.S. aid except Israel. He started with praise that had less to do with Egypt’s government than with its history and populace. He said he discussed the issue with Mubarak, who himself said nothing on the topic. “Because of the predominant role you play, and because I strongly believe that Egypt can play a role in the freedom and justice movement … my hope is that the Egyptian government will build on these important steps, and give the people of this proud nation a greater voice in your future,” Bush said. He did not publicly mention jailed political opposition leader Ayman Nour, whose case U.S. officials have pledged to raise each time they meet the Egyptians.
As gasoline and heating oil prices soar at home, Bush urged the OPEC oil cartel to consider boosting production. White House press secretary Dana Perino said Saudi King Abdullah understood the concern Bush raised Tuesday night. But there was no apparent commitment from the Saudis and no immediate move from OPEC.
With the U.S. economy suffering from the effects of high energy costs as well as a housing crisis, one of Bush’s first acts upon returning to Washington was to be a conference call Thursday afternoon with congressional leaders in both parties and both chambers to discuss a possible short-term stimulus package.
The centerpiece of the most extensive Mideast trip of Bush’s presidency was the ambitious goal of a signed peace deal before he leaves office a year from now. Talks have been fitful, with few tangible results so far. On Wednesday, Israel moved to dismantle two unauthorized settler outposts, a sticking point in talks.
Arab states were not shy in criticizing Bush’s arms-length approach up to now. Mubarak was among those who told Bush he was creating a larger problem by letting the issue fester and by feeding the perception that he is too partial to Israel.
Bush’s strategy, formed over the last year, turns the tables somewhat. It asks Arab states to be ground-floor investors in a plan the Israelis and Palestinians will largely write themselves. It would set the terms of peace but probably leave the job of setting up an independent Palestinian state to the next U.S. president.
Mubarak’s quarter-century in power has seen multiple failed peace efforts and over time Egypt has seen its status as the Arab world’s main Mideast mediator slip to another power player, Saudi Arabia. Still, Mubarak endorsed Bush’s one-year timeline and offered to work “hand-in-hand” alongside the United States and other peacemakers to make it happen, a more enthusiastic statement than Bush received elsewhere. “I emphasized that the Palestinian question, of course, is the core of problems and conflict in the Middle East,” Mubarak told reporters after he and Bush met and had lunch at this Red Sea resort.
Egypt was meant to be a test case for Bush’s second-term promise to push democracy in the Middle East. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice chose Egypt as the site of a major challenge to Mideast leaders in 2005, after delaying her trip to protest Egypt’s treatment of Nour.
The U.S. cheered a season of relative political openness that same year, including Egypt’s first multiparty elections, but then the Mubarak government retrenched.
Washington moved recently to put conditions on aid, with a bill that withholds a small portion until Egypt stops the smuggling of weapons from its land into the Palestinian Gaza Strip via border tunnels and makes other domestic changes.
A loophole allows the administration to waive the withholding out of national security concerns. But Egyptian officials are angry nonetheless.
In a sign of the chillier ties, most Egyptian newspapers friendly toward Mubarak’s government have downplayed Bush’s trip, mentioning it only briefly on front pages on Wednesday. Bush’s stop here was among the shortest of his trip, at only three hours.
Meanwhile, democracy activists whom the U.S. had encouraged say their aims have taken a back seat to Washington’s desire for Mubarak’s support on regional issues such as Iraq and the Israeli-Arab peace process. “Undoubtedly, if there had been further foreign pressure for reforms, things would have changed,” said Hisham Kassem, the former publisher of the independent Al-Masri Al-Youm newspaper. He won the 2007 Democracy Award of the National Endowment for Democracy, a private, nonprofit organization funded chiefly by the U.S. government to promote democratic institutions around the world.
Over the past year, several secular newspaper editors in Egypt have been tried, some sentenced to prison, for anti-Mubarak writings. The country’s most outspoken government critic, Egyptian-American Saad Eddin Ibrahim, has gone to the United States for fear of arrest; he faces trial on accusations of harming national interests. The Egyptian government also has waged a heavy crackdown on its strongest domestic opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, arresting hundreds of the Islamic fundamentalist group’s members.
The Bush administration rebuked Egypt rhetorically, to little effect. Egypt would still continue to get $1.3 billion (¤880 million) annually in U.S. aid for the next decade under a package the administration sent to Congress last year.