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Rice makes forceful case for democracy in Mideast


Daily Star:

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a forceful case for democracy in the Middle East, telling Egypt's government leaders "the fear of free choices can no longer justify the denial of liberty." Rice's remarks were to some 700 invited government officials, academics and other guests at the American University in Cairo. The setting is notable, both because Egypt plans multiparty elections in September and because the Bush administration has made no secret of its dissatisfaction with political progress and the treatment of opposition figures by the government.

"For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither," Rice said.

"Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people."

But Rice's message drew a less than enthusiastic reception in Egypt.

Her speech produced no major applause, merely a polite ovation at the end. The biggest hand was reserved for audience members who questioned her on alleged war crimes against the Palestinians and abuses of the Koran.

In her speech, Rice noted that U.S. President George W. Bush, in his second inaugural address, said the U.S. would not try to impose an American-style of government on the unwilling and that the goal of his administration was to help others find their own voice.

Rice said the United States would no longer tolerate oppression in the name of stability, putting allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia on notice as well as familiar targets Iran and Syria.

"Throughout the Middle East the fear of free of choices can no longer justify the denial of liberty. It is time to abandon the excuses that are made to avoid the hard work of democracy," Rice said.

In Saudi Arabia, she noted, three people are currently in jail for petitioning the government. "That should not be a crime in any country," she said.

She lauded Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for calling for elections but said she was concerned for the future of Egypt's reforms because of the violence that has faced "peaceful supporters of democracy."

She said: "The Egyptian government must fulfill the promise it has made to its people, and to the entire world, by giving its citizens the freedom to choose."

Rice also delivered a blunt slap at Hamas.

"For all citizens with grievances democracy can be a path to lasting justice. But the democratic system cannot function if certain groups have one foot in the realm of politics and one foot in the camp of terror," Rice said.

Earlier at a news conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Rice said the world will be watching the elections. Her Egyptian counterpart promised the voting will be free, fair and open.

"Who would object to fair and transparent elections?" Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abo al-Gheit said. "It will be so, I assure you."

Rice said she had discussed preparations for the elections with Mubarak, who surprised Washington and other Arab nations this spring when he announced his country would hold its first ever multiparty elections.

Limits on who can run and scattered violence and thuggery during a referendum raised international doubt that Mubarak is serious about reform.

But the Bush administration has mostly praised Mubarak, while thrashing Iran for placing somewhat similar limitations on the slate of candidates in elections this past weekend.

Abu al-Gheit said he told Rice the allegations of mistreatment of the Koran and abuse of prisoners by U.S. troops at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq resonated strongly in the Arab world.

"I told you also that there is anger in the region and that we have to work on this anger," Abu al-Gheit said, looking directly at Rice.

Later in the day, Rice met a group of Egyptian political party members and independent activists, who voiced their concern over U.S. actions in Iraq and those of Israel in the Palestinian territories.

Senior members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood and the largely secular Kefaya (Enough) Movement said they were not invited to the meeting.

"One of our major challenges is to have progress in Palestine and Iraq because they are perpetuating religious extremism and this is for us a huge impediment to political reform," lawyer Mona Zulfikar said after the meeting. - Agencies

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