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Bush Vs. His Mideast Message

In calling for more democracy in the Middle East, President Bush echoed what many Arabs have said for years. But with Mr. Bush as the messenger, many were skeptical that the United States would push for real change in the region's autocratic rule.

The speech Thursday in Washington, televised throughout the Arab world, also provoked resentment since many Arabs believe the U.S. government manufactured reasons to wage war on Iraq and regularly sides unfairly with Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians.

In its Friday edition, a signed editorial in the leading Lebanese daily An-Nahar described the speech as "very attractive words" but said that "before they become tangible policies that deal with the real problems, they will continue to be boring, empty rhetoric."

"Exposing the region's ills is useless. We already know them…What is required is a realization that the underlying problem continues to be Palestine and the obscene American bias for Israel and against Arabs, their interests and hopes," wrote columnist Sahar Baasiri.

Lebanon's left-wing daily As-Safir commented that Mr. Bush's speech "lacked the practical and necessary suggestions for achieving his vision for the region."

Iran — which came under particular criticism by Mr. Bush — called the speech an "obvious interference in Iran's internal affairs."

"No individual, or group, has ever commissioned Mr. Bush to safeguard their rights," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Asefi, according to Iran's Islamic Republic News Agency. "And basically, keeping in mind the dark record of the United States in suppressing the democratic movements around the globe, he is not in a position to talk about such issues."

There was little official reaction from Middle Eastern governments and the public since the speech came after dark in the Middle East when Muslims are breaking their daylight fast in the holy month of Ramadan — and on the eve of the Islamic day of prayer, when many newspapers do not publish.

But political analysts said Mr. Bush's plea would ring true with advocates of democracy who for years, even decades, have demanded an end to autocratic governments and corrupt politics.

"Bush is reading the situation correctly — there is a great need for greater democratic reform across the Middle East," Gehad Auda, a political scientist at Egypt's Helwan University, said in a telephone interview.

The analysts also said, however, that Arabs were likely to react more to the speaker than to the speech.

"Arabs want democracy. They hate their corrupt regimes more than they hate the United States," wrote Abdul Bari Atwan, editor-in-chief of the London-based Arabic daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi.

"But," he added, "they are not going to listen attentively to the speech of the American president, first, because the consecutive American administrations, in the past 50 years, supported those regimes…and because all true democracies in the world came as a result of internal struggle, not due to foreign intervention, particularly American."

Mr. Bush did say in his speech that Western governments had been wrong for decades in backing undemocratic, corrupt leaders in the Middle East. He had praise for steps toward democracy taken by some Arab governments — generally U.S. allies — and renewed his criticism of what he regards as despotic rule in Iran and Syria.

However, Iran is a democracy, albeit one where elected rulers must wrestle with an entrenched clerical establishment. The United States orchestrated a coup in 1953 that overthrew an elected Iranian government. U.S. allies in the region include Saudi Arabia, which is a monarchy.

Syrian political analysts reacted with the usual dismissal of American criticism. "How can we believe that the one who is biased in favor of Israel…can bring acceptable democratic projects to the people of the region?" said analyst Imad Fawzi al-Shueibi.

The few people out on the street who were willing to speak publicly about the speech echoed the mixed feelings of political analysts.

In the Syrian capital Damascus, 37-year-old worker Ali Rida said Mr. Bush's talk of democracy didn't conceal the true U.S. policy in the region.

"If they want to export democracy through wars, we do not want it," he said. "Let them keep it to themselves."