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US Push for Democracy in Middle East Going Through Slow Phase

President Bush has urged the broader Middle East countries to embrace democracy and free elections. Several months ago, there was optimism about that policy. But now, some analysts say, the political rise of Islamists, the inability of Iraqi factions to agree on a new government, and concerns about Iran's influence in the region may have taken the pressure off Middle Eastern rulers to institute democratic reforms.

President Bush believes the spread of democracy will lead to a more peaceful world. But in Egypt, one of the United State's closest allies, the government of Hosni Mubarak has delayed municipal elections by two years after the Muslim Brotherhood made big gains in parliamentary elections late last year.

The delay is widely seen as an effort to maintain the ruling party's monopoly and pave the way to power for Gamal Mubarak, the son of the president. Hosni Mubarak's government continues also to restrict the creation of secular opposition parties.

Opposition leader Ayman Nour, who finished second in the first-ever contested presidential elections in Egypt, remains in jail.

Tom Malinowski, the Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch, believes Egypt is the real test of the policy promoting democracy.

"The U.S. has called for Ayman Nour to be released, it has called on Mubarak to hold free and fair elections, but when Mubarak has failed to heed these calls, the relationship has not suffered in a way that I think would say to the Egyptian government: ‘This is important to America’."

Malinowski believes the U.S. has to use more leverage and influence to promote positive change. But changes in the Middle East have not always gone the way the U.S. would have preferred. Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections. It is considered by the U.S. and others to be a terrorist organization.

In Egypt, the Islamists did much better than expected in parliamentary elections. Iraq's efforts to form a new government have been unsuccessful.

Nathan Brown, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, thinks the U.S. may have eased up on democracy.

"I think there is some diminished enthusiasm in the U.S. push for democracy in the Arab world. It has not completely disappeared, but after the elections in Iraq and the strengthening of the Islamic parties there, after the strong show of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, there is a little bit of hesitation,” says Brown. “And after the election of Hamas in Palestine, there is a big problem for American policy. They still seem to be trying to push for democracy and democratization, but I think it is probably came down a notch in their list of priorities."

That could be why Saudi Arabia refused to have an election for its consultative council. It does not have a parliament.

In Yemen, the government has restricted the freedom of the news media ahead of presidential elections this year. Parliamentary elections in Qatar were postponed again till next year.

Arab leaders may be assuming they can outlast the Bush administration and its democratization efforts.

Tamara Cofman Wittes, a Research Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, says the push for democracy will not end. "The U.S. can't take a neutral stance on the future of this very important part of the world. The U.S. is going to be engaged in one fashion or another. Given that, I think it is important, it is wise for the U.S. to have put itself on the side of democracy and freedom in this region rather than on the side of maintaining what in the long run is unsustainable status quo."

State Department Spokesman Alberto Fernandez says the United States continues to make democracy a priority. " We need to embrace change, we need to embrace democracy as a country and this is what we are doing in the region."

Fernandez says democratic development is not always linear, and takes time. Some political analysts believe that there is a sense of urgency, however. They say many of the incumbent regimes in the Middle East have been repressive and corrupt, and their peoples are looking for alternatives -- if not democracy, then perhaps Islamism.