Cairo Audience Cool to Rice’s Call for Democratic Reform

Times Staff Writer

In a reflection of the Bush administration’s new global priorities, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday delivered a high-profile call for political reform in the Middle East and urged Egypt to lead the way.

In her speech, billed by aides as the main public event of her weeklong trip to the Middle East and Europe, Rice told an invitation-only audience -- about 600 of the country’s Westernized elite -- at the American University of Cairo that democracy was an inevitable part of the region’s future, “a future that Egyptians can lead and can define.”

“Liberty is the universal longing of every soul, and democracy is the ideal path for every nation,” she said.


Although the crowd greeted Rice with polite applause as she entered the auditorium, her 24-minute speech drew only silence despite its soaring rhetoric and sweeping nature.

Senior members of the administration have made the push for political liberalization a centerpiece of Middle East policy during the early months of President Bush’s second term.

But Rice’s day in Cairo, perhaps like none other so far, underscored the complexities of implementing a vision that critics say is utopian. It also highlighted the inconsistencies in the administration’s approach.

Egypt’s role as one of America’s most important Arab allies and a key participant in the search for peace between Israel and the Palestinians made it awkward for Rice to criticize the country’s authoritarian leader, Hosni Mubarak. He has suppressed most meaningful political opposition and has ruled under martial law since he became president 24 years ago.

Mubarak pleased Washington this year by announcing he would open the September presidential election to more than one candidate, but he carried out the initiative with so many restrictions that it generated little hope among Egyptian voters.

At an anti-government demonstration in May, protesters were assaulted by thugs as police stood by, and thousands were detained.


The crackdown came just after First Lady Laura Bush, during a brief visit to Cairo, praised the election law as “a very bold step.”

In Rice’s speech Monday, she nudged the Egyptian leader by urging his government to “fulfill the promise it has made to its people, and to the entire world, by giving its citizens the freedom to choose.”

“We are all concerned for the future of Egypt’s reforms when peaceful supporters of democracy -- men and women -- are not free from violence,” she said.

Rice disappointed many in the audience when she told a questioner after the speech that the U.S. would have no contact with the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition force in the country. The group has formally renounced violence as a tool for political change, but it is banned in Egypt under a law prohibiting religious-based parties.

“We haven’t engaged the Muslim Brotherhood and we won’t,” Rice said.

Some of those who attended the speech complained that her stance in effect legitimized Mubarak’s government.

Rice made her comments on the fourth day of her trip. She left Cairo later in the day for the Saudi capital, Riyadh.


Osama Ali, a businessman who attended Rice’s speech, predicted that Egyptians would be pleased that the top U.S. diplomat was pressuring the government for change. “I think the audience would have liked her to be even stronger,” he said.

But Amr Abou Alam, a 36-year-old telecommunications expert, said he resented Rice coming to Cairo to talk about reforms in Egypt, even though he agreed with her about the need for reform.

“It’s like giving us a lesson in morals,” he said. “I simply won’t accept it.”

After her speech, Rice met with a group of nine Egyptian opposition figures, including Ayman Nour, leader of the Tomorrow Party, whose arrest in January led Rice to cancel an earlier visit to Egypt in protest.

Nour called the meeting “very positive.”

“It’s good to see American diplomacy extending a little further than the regime,” said another participant, Hisham Kassem, vice chairman of Al Masry al Youm, a newly founded independent daily Arabic-language paper.

In contrast to her careful remarks about Mubarak, Rice has minced few words about other leaders in her travels as secretary of State.

In April she denounced President Alexander G. Lukashenko’s government in Belarus as “the last true dictatorship in the center of Europe.” She met with Belarusian opposition figures on the fringes of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization meeting in Lithuania.


She was equally direct Monday in her criticism of two U.S. adversaries in the Middle East, labeling Syria a police state and talking of “the organized cruelty of Iran’s theocratic state.”

She used milder language in taking aim at Saudi Arabia, another U.S. ally in the region, noting that “many people [there] still pay an unfair price for exercising their basic rights.”

She raised the issue of three people who were imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for petitioning the government for change, saying, “that should not be a crime in any country.”

Although her words were carefully chosen, they were considered significant because it is unusual for a senior American official to criticize Riyadh.

At a midnight news conference in Riyadh, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal said Rice’s mention of the three jailed petitioners had had little effect. “They are in the hands of the courts, and the government cannot interfere in a court action,” he said.


Times staff writer Jailan Zayan contributed to this report.