Egypt thwarts democracy forum

MANAMA, Bahrain — A U.S.-backed conference to promote Middle East democracy ended in chaos yesterday, with Egyptians leaving early after blocking Bush administration proposals to subsidize groups that promote political reform.

A draft declaration on democratic and economic principles that was to be released in a closing press conference was shelved instead because of Egyptian objections.

With U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice present, Egypt Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit left early.

“We didn’t withdraw” from the conference, Mr. Gheit said later. “What happened is that the meeting took so long, more than it was scheduled.”

President Bush hosted a coming-out party for the Forum for the Future last year at Sea Island, Ga., and the United States is putting up half of the $100 million in a venture-capital fund for economic development established at the gathering this year. The fund includes $50 million from the United States, with contributions from Egypt, Morocco and Denmark.

The White House had hoped the conference would showcase political progress in a part of the world long dominated by monarchies and single-party rule and would spread good will for the United States.

American officials seemed startled that an ally, Egypt, threw up a roadblock. Egypt receives nearly $2 billion annually in U.S. aid, second only to Israel. The country held its first multiparty elections this year, but Egypt remains under de facto one-party rule and the firm control of President Hosni Mubarak.

Earlier yesterday, Miss Rice, speaking to ministers at the 36-nation conference, said that Washington supports the people of Syria and their “aspirations for liberty, democracy and justice under the rule of law.”

The conference began to unravel during tense and ultimately unsuccessful negotiations over the language of a final statement. Bahrain’s foreign minister, Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, told reporters that the declaration will come up again, perhaps at a gathering scheduled for Jordan next year.

Many Middle East nations are wary of Mr. Bush’s second-term democracy agenda for the region. Some private organizations that the administration has tried to engage are reluctant to take money from the United States.

“It would be a disaster for this region if the region thought democracy is an American idea,” British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said at the closing press conference, where a final statement, or communique, had been expected to be released.

In addition to the $100 million venture-capital fund, the conference also started a $50 million foundation aimed at promoting democracy and political change in the Middle East. Both initiatives were shepherded by Liz Cheney, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state. The vice president’s daughter accompanied Miss Rice on a Mideast trip to Bahrain, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and the West Bank.

U.S. officials said the sticking point was a passage in the declaration that pledged “to expand democratic practices, to enlarge participation in political and public life and to foster the roles of civil society,” including nongovernmental organizations, and to widen women’s political and economic participation.

The U.S. State Department and others describe nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, as both humanitarian aid organizations, such as the Red Cross, and lesser-known advocacy groups that promote political reform.

Egypt wanted the statement to stipulate that those organizations be “legally registered” under each country’s laws. U.S. officials said the requirement would undermine the purpose of the statement.

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