This is what democracy looks like?

President and Mrs. Bush miss an opportunity to promote democratic reform in Egypt.

Published May 27, 2005 6:25PM (EDT)

The Bush administration is likely to portray Wednesday's referendum in Egypt, in which voters officially approved President Hosni Mubarak's plans to hold the first competitive presidential elections later this year, as a victory for democracy. But several opposition groups boycotted the vote, since the only candidates allowed to compete in the election will be handpicked by the government.

Outside polling stations Wednesday in Cairo, pro-democracy demonstrators were attacked by policemen and hired government thugs. "Women were surrounded, groped and had their clothes torn," wrote a Los Angeles Times reporter on the scene. "Some demonstrators were thrown down flights of concrete stairs, dragged by their hair and kicked by swarms of young men."

President Bush denounced the attacks on Thursday. "The idea of people expressing themselves in opposition to the government, then getting beaten, is not our view of how a democracy ought to work," he said. But the administration squandered a chance to make its case for real democratic reform during a recent visit to Egypt by Laura Bush, who strongly endorsed Mubarak. The First Lady said Mubarak had taken "a bold step," with this week's referendum, but emphasized that "each step is a small step, [and] you can't be quick."

President Bush and many of his supporters have suggested that the U.S. war on Saddam Hussein's Iraq, culminating in the country's first elections this January, set off a wave of democratic reform in the Middle East. But Egypt and Saudi Arabia haven't exactly proven model examples -- and the administration continues to act as if it can have it both ways. At a recent meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah at Bush's Texas ranch, the president wooed the Saudi leader to get some help on soaring oil prices, but didn't bother even to bring up the country's continuing human rights abuses.

By Julia Scott

San Francisco-based freelance journalist Julia Scott writes about water and energy issues for various publications. She also covers the environment for Bay Area News Group, a chain of newspapers in Northern California.

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