Egypt was meant to be a test case for President Bush's push for greater democracy in the Middle East. But stalled reforms and bitterness over the jailing of hundreds of dissidents are haunting his visit here Wednesday.
Activists say the U.S. democracy push has taken a back seat to politics. They blame Washington for easing its pressure on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to win his support on key regional issues such as Iraq and the Israeli-Arab peace process.
At the same time, the Egyptian government has bristled over what it considers American interference, and ties between the longtime allies have cooled.
In a speech on democracy Sunday, Bush made no mention of Egypt except for what was widely seen as an implicit criticism of the country's crackdown on political opponents.
"You cannot build trust when you hold an election where opposition candidates find themselves harassed or in prison," Bush said in the United Arab Emirates. "And you cannot stand up a modern and confident nation when you do not allow people to voice their legitimate criticisms."
Across the Gulf, ruling families have shown little sign of easing their monopoly on power, and Bush was left to praise the few small reforms that have taken place. He pointed to municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, as well as votes in Bahrain, Kuwait and the UAE.
The speech reflected what appears to be warmer U.S. ties with Arab Gulf nations than with Egypt. Notably, Bush spent two days in Saudi Arabia this week, but will stop in Egypt for only several hours to meet Mubarak in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik.
Initial concessions followed by crackdown
It is a strong contrast to three years ago, when the Bush administration unveiled the "Greater Middle East" plan, which made democratic reforms in the region a U.S. priority.
At the time, Bush made Egypt, the most populous Arab country with some 79 million people, a focus of the policy, hailing it as a "great and proud nation" that could lead the Middle East toward democracy, pointing to its 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
Mubarak's government — which receives about $2 billion in annual U.S. aid, including $1.3 billion in military assistance — initially made some concessions under American pressure.
In 2005, the government amended the constitution to allow multi-candidate presidential elections for the first time, replacing the system in which Mubarak ran alone in single-candidate referendums. He easily won the 2005 election, and critics said the changes were cosmetic.
In the two years that followed, parliament elections were marred by widespread violence and vote rigging to ensure ruling party victories, as were referendums to push through constitutional changes that critics said cemented Mubarak's hold on power.
The government has waged a heavy crackdown on its strongest domestic opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, arresting hundreds of the Islamic fundamentalist group's members, as well as some secular opponents.
Ayman Nour, a top opposition leader who ran against Mubarak in 2005, was sentenced to five years in prison on forgery charges that his supporters say were trumped up.
"What is the benefit of talking (about democracy) any more, it is futile," said Gamila Ismail, Nour's wife.
U.S. criticism tepid or silent
U.S. criticism has been tepid or silent. While U.S. officials insist they have kept up the pressure privately, reformists question Washington's sincerity on democracy.
"Undoubtedly, if there had been further foreign pressure for reforms, things would have changed," Hisham Kassem, the former reform-minded publisher of the independent Al-Masri Al-Youm newspaper, told The Associated Press.
"Had they continued for two more years, a new democratic horizon would have been opened in the entire area," said Kassem, who received the 2007 Democracy Award of the National Endowment for Democracy, a private, nonprofit organization funded chiefly by the U.S. government to promote democratic institutions around the world.
Kassem believes Washington backed off on pressing Egypt on democracy after the Muslim Brotherhood made a surprisingly strong showing in 2005 parliament elections and the radical Hamas group won Palestinian elections.
The Bush administration "was afraid that the victory of the Islamic parties in elections will further complicate things in the area and under Israeli pressure they had to change course," he said.
Over the past year, several secular newspaper editors have been tried, some sentenced to prison, for anti-Mubarak writings. Egypt's most outspoken government critic, Egyptian-American Saad Eddin Ibrahim, has gone to the United States for fear of arrest in Egypt, where he faces trial on accusations of harming national interests.
Mubarak this week defended what he called "gradual" democratic reform and implicitly criticized the United States and its 2003 invasion of Iraq.
"We have in our region and elsewhere examples of societies that faced instability and chaos as a result of uncalculated and sudden transformation," he said.