SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt – Israel got glowing praise from U.S. President George W. Bush earlier this week, while on Sunday, the Arab world got a stern lecture on the need to spread freedoms and isolate state sponsors of terror that he said are holding the region back.
"Too often in the Middle East, politics has consisted of one leader in power and the opposition in jail," Bush said in remarks prepared for delivery before the World Economic Forum on the Middle East. "The time has come for nations across the Middle East to abandon these practices, and treat their people with the dignity and respect they deserve."
The White House released the text of the speech Bush was giving to hundreds of global policymakers and business leaders gathered in this Red Sea beach town. The address was Bush's finishing touch on a five-day Mideast trip that also took him to Israel and Saudi Arabia, and was meant by the White House as the twin to president's speech Thursday before the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. He drew on some of the same language in describing his vision for the region in 60 years.
To get there, Bush presented Mideast leaders with a long to-do list: make their economies more diverse, competitive and open to entrepreneurs; enact political reforms that move nations into democratic governments, and not just sham ones; allow freedom of information and rule of law; improve education; ensure greater participation in society for women; and push back against the negative influence of "spoilers" like Iran and Syria.
"There is much to do," he said. "The future is in your hands — and freedom and peace are within your grasp."
His message was aimed at the countries in the region where the political and civil systems are far from free, including Egypt, the host of the gathering which was almost alone in being singled out for criticism. Delivered in person in the heart of the Middle East, the speech was a follow-up to Bush's promise in his second inaugural address to work in every nation for "ending tyranny in our world."
"I continue to hope that Egypt can lead the region in political reform," he said.
One of the largest recipients of U.S. aid, Egypt has nonetheless seen roller-coaster relations with Washington in recent years.
It held its first multiparty presidential elections in 2005. But then the Mubarak government retrenched, by jailing the most prominent secular opposition leader, going after the editors of the independent press and waging a heavy crackdown on its strongest domestic opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood.
The speech, and Bush's second Mideast trip of the year, came eight months before the end of his presidency, his target date for reaching a sweeping peace agreement that would resolve generations-old grievances and create a Palestinian state. His national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, announced that Bush might return for a third, as-yet-unscheduled visit to the region if "there is work for him to advance the peace process."
Hadley made clear, though, that actually establishing an independent Palestine would take years. "The president never said it would be implemented during his term," he said.
"What we've wanted to do and what is still the president's objective is an agreement for a Palestinian state that is the core of a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinans that would ultimately end the conflict."
The president counseled Arab states to "move past their old resentments against Israel" and "invest aggressively" in the Palestinian people, what he views as their role in the process.
Israel got no public nudge when Bush spent two days there for 60th anniversary celebrations. The contrast was likely to reinforce the notion among Arabs that Bush leans too far Israel's way in the long-running Mideast dispute, and that Washington doesn't push Israel hard enough to give way on issues that anger Palestinians and stymie a deal.
Egypt's state-owned papers, whose managers are appointed by the government and closely follow the official line, blasted Bush in their editorials upon his arrival Saturday, criticizing him for being biased towards Israel and not being a credible broker for any peace deal.
Bush has tried to counter that by talking more about the Palestinians' plight while here in Egypt than he did in Israel. He also offered plenty of praise for democratic advances, naming countries like Turkey, Afghanistan, Iraq, Morocco and Jordan.
"The light of liberty is beginning to shine," he said.
The president asked the Islamic world to join the United States in its determination to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. "To allow the world's leading sponsor of terror to gain the world's deadliest weapon would be an unforgivable betrayal of future generations," he said.
The emphasis on Iran reflects Bush's desire to counter Tehran's quest for greater influence in the region. New urgency was added to that task by recent turmoil in Lebanon that the U.S. and many Sunni Arab countries believe has been fomented by Shiite-dominated Iran, as well as Syria.
"It is now clearer than ever that Hezbollah militias are the enemy of a free Lebanon and all nations, especially neighbors in the region, have an interest in helping the Lebanese people prevail," he said.
He made clear that there are ways to define democracy that he finds acceptable — and not.
"Some say any state that holds an election is a democracy," Bush said.
Not so. "True democracy," he said, requires "vigorous political parties allowed to engage in free and lively debate," institutions that ensure legitimate elections and accountability for leaders, and an opposition that can campaign "without fear and intimidation."
Bush also devoted considerable attention to the disenfranchisement of women in many Mideast nations. A strong economy can't be built without the participation of the "formidable force" of females, he said.
"This is a matter of morality and of basic math," he said. "No nation that cuts off half its population from opportunities will be as productive or prosperous as it could be."
Bush also rebutted what he said are the many arguments from "skeptics about democracy in this part of the world," without specifying who they are. He said democracy is not "a Western value that America seeks to impose on unwilling citizens" and nor is it incompatible with the religion of Islam.
Earlier in the day, Bush met with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, Jordan's King Abdullah II, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and leaders from Iraq.
"I'm impressed by the progress that's taking place, the security progress," Bush said after his session with the Iraqi officials. "We also talked about the fact that more work needs to be done."