SHARM EL-SHEIKH: In his opening speech at the World Economic Forum in Sharm El-Sheikh, US president George W. Bush emphasized the need for political reform to go hand in hand with economic reforms, the importance of collectively fighting terrorism, and his hopes for a final settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in 2008, as usual making frequent allusions to God.
He opened his talk with a reference to the respect he has for the history of Egypt, highlighting that despite being a young nation, the US too has helped inculcate the ideals of liberty and justice that have sparked democratic revolutions across the world.
He lauded the leaders of vision in the region who have helped spur great advances in their countries whose future looks bright, highlighting the case of Turkey, which is a Muslim country that is also a flourishing democracy.
Referring to Egypt, Bush said that since 2004, the economy has grown by at least 7 percent and made impressive growth in increasing foreign investment. “But to reach its full potential economic and political reform must go hand in hand, he said.
Although soaring oil prices have been a great source of wealth, the Middle East needs to strive to develop more diverse and dynamic economies and unleash the creativity and innovation of its people.
He said there was a need to break down trade barriers, which the US has done with Free Trade Agreements with countries like Jordan and Oman, and that it will continue going in that direction, though he did not mention anything about the status of the FTA with Egypt.
“The key development in the Middle East and North Africa is in an educated workforce with the capacity to innovate . not hate, he said.
He noted the strides in the education of women achieved in Afghanistan and the US’s commitment to welcoming more Middle Eastern students to US education facilities by improving visa processes that had become prohibitive after Sept. 11.
“Educational exchange, he said, “there is no better antidote to [the ideas of] enemies than first hand experience of our society.
Focusing on the importance of improving the status of women, the US president said that Egypt is a model for the advancement of women.
About democracy, he said that freedom and the democratic system guarantee the “God-given rights of all people, but that democracies develop at different rates and are influenced by culture and tradition.
He denied that democracy is incompatible with Islam or with any religion, as proven by the fact that the US, a highly democratic nation, is also an extremely religious country, where citizens practice their faith with “no fear of reprisal . democracy does not threaten Islam, he said.
But true democracy, he added, requires political pluralism and civic institutions that hold people accountable.
Yet he regretted that in the Middle East too many dissident voices are stifled and that the region must “treat its people with dignity and called for the release of all “prisoners of conscience and the opening up of political debate.
In a reference to Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, he said that terrorist organizations and state-sponsored terror creates chaos and so all nations must stand together to face them.
His aspiration for a two-state solution with a democratic Palestine alongside a democratic Israel began with the Annapolis conference, which he was hopeful would begin to outline what the nation of Palestine will look like.
“It’s a demanding task . but Palestine must end the terror and Israel must make sacrifices, he said, urging the region to invest heavily in Palestine and for all nations to “stand against Hamas.
In a related note, he urged people to oppose Hezbollah and its Iranian support, saying that Hezbollah militias are the “enemies of a free Lebanon and that we “must all help the Lebanese people prevail.
Al-Qaeda and Iran are the “enemies of peace, he said, and all nations must unite to prevent the development of Iranian nuclear weapons.
The key to core reform is in demographics, with 60 percent of the region’s population under 30. They are an informed generation with the power of access to the web and satellite television.
“History will surprise us, he concluded, “and change will happen faster than we expect and the region will reach horreya, freedom . the future is in your hands, freedom and peace are in your grasp .
Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and Hamas will be defeated as people realize that freedom [is the answer].
“This is a universal vision, it will take time . May God be with you on this journey, and the US will be standing by your side.