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Arab allies test US 'freedom' agenda

President Bush meets Wednesday with the prime minister of Egypt, which has limited its elections.

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Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazief's meeting with President Bush Wednesday comes at a troubling time for the president's Middle East agenda. The administration's calls for radical change in the region are now butting up against clear resistance from its closest Arab allies.

Some, like the monarchies of Bahrain and Jordan, simply continue to limit political competition. Others, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are cracking down on reformists. Egypt has arrested thousands of political opponents in the past two weeks, while Saudi Arabia sentenced three activists on Sunday to up to nine years in jail for "sowing dissent."

The actions of these close American allies has now put the ball in Washington's court. The US is balancing its stated interest in fostering democracy against the potential harm that could be done to the short-term interests - like fighting terrorism, Arab normalization with Israel, supporting the war in Iraq, and oil - that usually guide its engagement with the region.

While Bush's second-term agenda goals of sowing the seeds liberty and freedom are meeting challenges in some parts of the Middle East, the region is undergoing change. New elections are scheduled for Lebanon without Syrian influence. Saudi Arabia held the last round of its first nationwide polls to ceremonial municipal councils in April.

But how Mr. Nazief's visit is handled could well confirm an emerging divergence between America's commitment to promoting democracy in general terms and an unwillingness to alienate allies with specific action.

When Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia visited President Bush in Crawford, Texas, last month, US officials dodged questions on whether the US had complained about repression of dissidents in the kingdom. Instead, they said the president urged him to increase oil production and praised his support for the war on terror.

Asked if President Bush had complained about the closed-door trial of the three dissidents, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said: "There was a general discussion about the issue of reform in these various conversations over the last two days. I'm not going to get into the specifics." Soon after the Prince returned home, the three men were sentenced.

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