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Bush vision at odds with Arab allies

As Iraqis voted, Egypt was cracking down on political dissidents.

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Shortly after Sunday's vote in Iraq, President Bush called Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah, and Jordan's King Abdullah. The purpose: to talk about ways to build on changes in Iraq. For Mr. Bush, the election is just the first step in his broader vision for the Middle East, one in which freedom and democracy will spread quickly.

But at just about the same time, Egypt was cracking down on political opponents of Mr. Mubarak. Saudi Arabia and Jordan recently arrested dissidents.

Herein lies Bush's problem, say analysts. While opinion polls show that most Arabs want free elections, some of democracy's biggest opponents are today's Arab leaders. It took foreign occupation to conduct these elections. So a key question remains: Will Iraq's vote stir democratic change throughout the region?

Chibli Mallat, professor of international law at Beirut's St. Joseph University, says if the election is followed by better security and the beginning of an American military withdrawal, it could put pressure on neighboring states.

"If chaos ensues [in Iraq], the momentary positive shock [of the elections] might disappear," he says. "But there's no doubt that if the elections hold to their promise of empowering people who use non-violent means to conduct their business and ... [Arabs see] the beginning of foreign troops departing, then it would be an extremely significant precedent, perhaps the most important in the last 50 years in the Arab world."

Iraq vote dazzled Arab world

To be sure, the sight of Iraqis lining up at polling stations dazzled the Arab world, since it brought home the disconnect between their leaders' statements and actions. While many Arab leaders have attacked the occupation of Iraq, that occupation made possible a vote that isn't allowed in most of the region's independent states.

Still, Arab analysts dismiss the notion that democracy can only prevail in the Arab world at the point of a Western gun. In fact, Arab feelings about developments in Iraq are deeply conflicted. With the election coming under a de facto US occupation that echoes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, some analysts argue that - paradoxically - the military occupation of Iraq is hindering the spread of democracy elsewhere in the region.

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