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Middle East: U.S. Invitation To Muslim States Seeks To Set Reform In Motion

The leaders of five Muslim nations are expected to take up U.S. President George W. Bush's invitation to attend June's Group of Eight (G8) summit, where his Greater Middle East Initiative for regional reform will be discussed. Bush is seeking to show that the economically powerful G8 countries will support those states of the broader Middle East region that are willing to reform. But Arab states have so far been wary about following the U.S. initiative.

Prague, 25 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The United States is making a bold move designed to show that its Greater Middle East Initiative for reform can be advantageous to those countries willing to join in.

President George W. Bush has chosen to invite a number of Muslim states to the coming summit of the G8 leading industrial powers, which comprises the United States, Russia, the top Western European states, and Japan.

As a White House statement put it, Bush "anticipates that the G8 will respond to calls for reform from the region with offers of concrete support that will help reformers."

The summit takes place on Sea Island, in the southeastern U.S. state of Georgia, on 9 June. The White House says Bush is looking forward "to a discussion of how the G8 can support political, economic, and social freedom in the greater Middle East."

The Muslim states invited by the White House are Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, and Yemen.

What is not clear is how many other Mideast states turned down similar invitations to attend. Unconfirmed reports refer to Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Tunisia, and Qatar as having declined. Certainly, Egypt did so, because Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher went on television to say that President Hosni Mubarak would not be going.

When the regional reform idea was first set out by Washington, a number of Arab states criticized it as high-handed, saying democracy cannot be imposed from the outside but must be homegrown if it is to mean anything.

Mideast political analyst Daniel Neep of the Royal United Services Institute in London said Bush continues to face an uphill battle to swing the Mideast countries behind his initiative.

"Bush is trying to re-energize the Greater Middle East Initiative. There has been a lot of speculation in the [world] media that the Greater Middle East Initiative will be very much a 'lesser' Middle East initiative, and that it will not live up to the high expectations, which have been in place for several months, since the speech of November last year in which Bush sketched out the 'forward strategy for freedom,' which was the ideological basis, if you like, of the Middle East Initiative," Neep said.

The Arab states also say the United States should bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into the equation, because for Arabs the resolution of that problem is considered the hinge for progress in the entire region.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa emphasized this when he quoted from a statement issued by Arab League leaders in Tunis on 23 May.

[We, the Arab world leaders, stress] the necessity for commitment by all of the international parties to live up to all of the principles of international legitimacy and UN resolutions when it comes to the Israeli-Arab conflict. Without exception, these principles should be the basis of any resolution to this conflict, in accordance with the Arab summit and the [internationally backed] road map [for Mideast peace]," Moussa said.

The U.S. reform initiative does seem to have provoked the Mideast nations into expressing their intentions to press ahead with their own reform efforts. The Arab League summit issued a Tunis Declaration, which pledges that members will continue with modernization, strengthen democratic practices and expand popular participation in politics and public affairs.

Despite the declaration, analyst Neep cautioned against too high expectations for change among the Arab states. He points out that a number of Mideast and North African nations have been involved for years in a democratization process with the European Union.

"The European Union's Barcelona Process is seeking to encourage democratization and the rule of law, and respect for human rights, on the back of a trade-based agenda. Now, as to the EU's Barcelona Process, this has failed quite miserably to create any political impetus alongside the economic movement. And, indeed, there is a lot of criticism that the economic movement has not evolved in a way which encourages democratization and good governance," Neep said.

Neep said it remains to be seen whether the United States' own economic-based initiative can avoid the same pitfalls.