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Bush Speech on Mideast Democracy Draws Mixed Reviews - 2004-06-30

There is mixed reaction in the Middle East to President Bush's latest comments on democracy in Muslim countries. Mr. Bush made the comments Tuesday in Istanbul. Some see the remarks as more conciliatory than he has been in the past. Others say the president's comments are either confusing or nothing new.

When President Bush first launched his initiative for democratic reform in the Middle East earlier this year, reactions from Arab governments and analysts ranged from cautious to angry. The issue caused a postponement of the Arab League Summit, which eventually adopted a pro-reform resolution when it was finally held in May. But the resolution was a general endorsement of reform, and did not contain any specific actions for members to take, or any schedule for implementation.

Many Arabs are skeptical of calls for reform from outside the Middle East, and some saw President Bush's additional remarks on Tuesday as an effort to ease those concerns. The president emphasized that democracy can take different forms in different places, and is compatible with the values of Islam.

The head of the press office at the Arab League, Hossam Zaki, welcomed the president's remarks as more positive than his initial approach.

"There is an evolving understanding on the part of the United States, spelled out by the American president, that democracy is not something to be imposed on people, that democracy is a homegrown process," Mr. Zaki said.

But Mr. Zaki also said President Bush's statements about democracy and Islam were not new to Arab advocates of reform.

"Our own concept of democracy is not incompatible with either decency or religion or any moral code," he said. "I think our own concept of democracy is perfectly compatible with all these issues, so in this sense I don't think the speech brought anything new to our knowledge."

But at least one Middle Eastern observer found President Bush's comments in Istanbul a bit confusing. At Qatar University, Political Science Professor Mohamed Al-Musfr says the president's speech seems to soften his earlier stance, and at the same time to suggest that democracy in the Middle East can be something other than what democracy is elsewhere.

"He says he will not impose the democracy which is equivalent to the Western model. He is having a special democracy in the region," Professor Al-Musfr said. "This is what is contradictory you know, calling for democracy, and having a special, you know, recipe for this kind of democracy. It's not understood what this man is doing. Democracy means freedom of speech, freedom of participation, freedom of election, freedom of life. And you cannot divide this and have a special recipe for any district or region, different from the other one."

At the American University in Beirut, political science professor Sami Baroudi has a more positive interpretation of President Bush's latest comments on democracy in the Middle East.

"I think what he's doing basically is that he's complicating his own thinking about what's required in the Middle East," said Mr. Baroudi. "He's sort of incorporating more and more variables than he was willing to acknowledge at the beginning."

Still, Professor Baroudi says it will be difficult for President Bush to get much support for his ideas in the Middle East. He says because of the Iraq war and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the United States has a serious image problem in the region, which makes any U.S. proposals suspect. He says for any drive for democratic reform in the Middle East to have real impact, it would have to be accompanied by changes in U.S. policy.