Washington’s efforts to push democratic reform in the Middle East were unexpectedly bumped in mid-November when some of its key allies in the region refused to sign a US-backed accord guaranteeing increased freedom from government interference for non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had been hoping to announce the signing of a landmark agreement guaranteeing democratic reforms at the close of the two-day Forum for the Future conference of regional and international foreign ministers and NGOs in Manama on 11-12 November.

However, MEED understands that the governments of Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Oman, Syria and Tunisia were unwilling to sign the agreement.

‘A number of governments wanted some sentences added saying that NGOs must be registered under the existing laws of each country,’ said a senior Egyptian official.

‘The Bahrain declaration was an idea that we thought of, and had drafted,’ said Bahrain’s Foreign Affairs Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Ahmed al-Khalifa. ‘But due to the short time we had, there was not enough time to discuss its content. This needs months of discussion and the Bahrain declaration only had a few days. That is not enough time.’

US anger at the failure is focused on Cairo’s refusal to sign up to the agreement. ‘Cairo and Tunisia took the lead against signing the declaration,’ says a State Department source. ‘The others followed in order to maintain regional co-operation.’

‘Some governments in the region are uncomfortable with independent NGOs,’ said another State Department source. ‘They don’t understand that we are not trying to destabilise them. They don’t realise that increasing the role of civil society in the political process is not an existential threat. It will increase stability. Riyadh understands that it is in a fight for survival. They have experienced serious bombings. But other Middle East allies do not get it. They seem to be taking a more short-term approach focused on their domestic term of office.’

Despite the lack of an accord, many US and Arab officials believe the Forum for the Future represents a landmark in the development of democracy in the region because of the direct involvement of about 44 NGOs as well as regional and international governments. The summit also saw the launch of two pioneering initiatives: the Foundation for the Future, a new independent body established to fund local NGOs and the $100 million Fund for the Future to support local small and medium-sized enterprises (see Economy).

‘These are the first institutions for the form of [democratic change for] the future,’ Condoleezza Rice told MEED. ‘We have the participation of governments in the region to develop the role of independent civil society.