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Bush ends Mideast trip with a lecture

Too often, he said, "politics has consisted of one leader in power and the opposition in jail."

CAIRO, Egypt - In vivid contrast to his effusive stopover in Israel, President Bush ended a five-day Middle East trip yesterday by criticizing Arab nations for political repression and urging them toward economic reforms and women's rights.

The president's speech at the World Economic Forum in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh crystallized an approach that in Arab eyes stubbornly favors Israel over their own concerns and interests.

Bush's language was in many ways supportive, but his characterization of the region was a pointed challenge to U.S. allies, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

"Too often in the Middle East, politics has consisted of one leader in power and the opposition in jail," Bush said in an address to about 1,500 global policymakers and business leaders. "America is deeply concerned about the plight of political prisoners in this region, as well as democratic activists who are intimidated or repressed, newspapers and civil-society organizations that are shut down, and dissidents whose voices are stifled."

He added: "I call on all nations in this region to release their prisoners of conscience, open up their political debate, and trust their people to chart their future."

The mood was markedly different from that on Wednesday, when Bush began his tour of the region by celebrating Israel's 60th anniversary and receiving a standing ovation in the Knesset for saying "Happy Independence Day" in Hebrew.

Arab media outlets condemned what they regarded as the president's warm embrace of Israel and lack of understanding of the Palestinian cause.

The Bush administration has been criticized for such favoritism for years, and yesterday's comments appeared to underscore the president's misgivings about the Arab world while lauding its economic potential.

"The president was himself, finally. Maybe because this is the end of his political career," said Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian cabinet minister and now a lecturer at Birzeit University. "This is actually him. This is George Bush the human being, not the politician. . . . I always thought he was a Christian Zionist and a fundamentalist ideologue."

Speaking to reporters on Air Force One after the economic forum, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters Bush's visit to the region was "very fruitful. . . . It's not the last time that the president is going to be with these leaders. It's not the last time that he's going to have an opportunity to press this agenda forward."

In his remarks, Bush emphasized he would continue his push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord before he leaves office in January.

The president met over the weekend with Arab leaders, including Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who days earlier had referred to Israel's statehood as a catastrophe for Palestinians.

"We must stand with the Palestinian people, who have suffered for decades and earned the right to a homeland of their own," Bush said.

"A peace agreement is in the Palestinians' interest, it is in Israel's interest, it is in Arab states' interest, and it is in the world's interest. And I firmly believe that with leadership and courage, we can reach that peace agreement this year."

But Bush's calls to end repression and widen democracy strike many in the region as hypocritical.

In 2004, the Bush administration urged Egypt and other nations to allow free elections and political dissent. But after the Muslim Brotherhood won 20 percent of the seats in Egypt's parliament in 2005, Washington fell silent when the Mubarak regime cracked down on the organization, which the United States and Egypt feared would inspire other Islamist movements.

The Bush administration has relied on the support of Egypt and Saudi Arabia - nations with poor human-rights records that frequently jail political opponents - to help contain Iran and bring stability to Iraq and Lebanon.

American policy has become complicated further with the growing appeal of the militant groups Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Analysts here said Bush's call for democracy was rhetoric that ran contrary to the White House's interests.