- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 9, 2005

CAIRO, Egypt. — The children and many of the teachers and parents I met at King Fahd Academy have known no other president but Hosni Mubarak, who took office following the 1981 assassination of peacemaker Anwar Sadat. But their school stands, as the pyramids do, as a past-perfect reminder of what the future holds as democracy evolves in the Middle East.

Indeed, as Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon awaken from Islamist nightmares, a key question becomes: Are U.S. and Mideast leaders dancing as fast as they can toward building a secular foundation in the Middle East? It’s not a trick question, but the answer certainly depends on who’s doing the answering.

Israel, the sole democracy in the region, has done little to get other nations to consider it anything but a Jewish state. It seems hellbent on wallowing in the victimization of the past. Surely, you have wondered whether Israelis want peace with the Palestinians or whether they rather like being in their, shall I say, unique geopolitical position.

Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, has criticized the Bush administration for speaking with a forked tongue — words that Egyptian officials might think, but dare not say. And why should they? One of their country’s most outspoken opposition leaders, Ayman Nour, who was jailed this spring in Cairo, wants to unseat Mr. Mubarak. The Bush administration supports Mr. Nour’s right to redress, and at the same time continues to financially support the Egyptian. It also supports Israelis (with about $3 billion in annual aid) and Palestinians.

If that means the Bush administration speaks out of both sides of its mouth, then so be it — because the Israelis see something arising and it’s not Yasser Arafat.

Time and time again, President Bush has pushed democratic reforms on his foreign and public agendas. First lady Laura Bush pushes the agenda, too. During her recent tour to the Mideast, which included a stop here, she called for the Arab world to push the pillars of empowerment for women — education and employment. The theme of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit to the region this month will be Mideast democracy, as well as the Israeli-Palestinian road map.

The Arabs know there is a hard road to hoe, particularly with the incredible external push coming from the West. As Jordanian King Abdallah II said at the recent World Economic Summit: “People want to move forward, they want meaningful reform, they want to see a tangible difference in their lives. We must listen to their voices and we must act.”

Leaders from more than two dozen countries attended that summit — and they weren’t all Arabians. In fact, Mrs. Bush was there, as were Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

So, to return to my question — Are U.S. and Mideast leaders dancing as fast as they can toward building a secular foundation in the Middle East? — there are lots of answers.

Some leaders are dancing faster than others. That Mr. Mubarak is even considering open elections is a political reality deserving of commendation from the West and the East. Indeed, Egyptians suspected he was headed toward reform — albeit for his own reasons — when he last year began appointing younger members to his cabinet. The Mubarak government has the look of forty-something, a generation old enough to recall the Sadat years but young enough to imagine a brighter (and safer) future for their children’s children.

Mrs. Bush would be glad to know that the minister of education, Ahmed Gamal El Din Moussa, said Egypt’s education reform plan is focusing on women’s literacy, marrying education to workplace needs and bolstering school technologies. To better educate rural children and women, the Mubarak government plans to focus on “girl-friendly” outreach programs and smaller community schools. Educational programs will be geared toward tourism and hospitality, building and construction, and the energy sectors.

King Fahd Academy is but 1 year old. Its preschoolers and grade schoolers play on jungle gyms just as our children do. At their age, they know nothing of the Six Day War, little of the bitter words exchanged by men with last names like Sharon and Arafat. They look forward — forward to “coming to school,” as one said, and finding the “blue crayon,” as another said — without fear. Such innocence. It’s up to us to save the children — even if it means we have to dance a little faster.


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