- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 8, 2003

CAIRO, Jan. 8 (UPI) — Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher dismissed a U.S. initiative to promote democracy in Arab countries, Al Musawar magazine reported Wednesday.

It was the latest in hostile comments from Arab authorities on a plan announced last month by Secretary of State Colin Powell to develop an open economy as well as democracy in key Arab countries with which the United States has friendly relations.

The same goals would be sought in Iraq, should the United States intervene to oust the regime of President Saddam Hussein.

Maher was quoted by Al Musawar as saying, "Democracy in Egypt might not be exemplary, but we have achieved great progress and we are still proceeding on that path."

"We welcome any assistance in that regard on condition that no one dictates to us what we should do or claim to give us lessons in democracy," Maher said.

The project grew out of Washington's concern with anti-American violence that resulted in the attacks on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, and which has continued around the Muslim world since.

Called the U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative, it is intended to provide funding and a framework for the United States to work with governments and people in the Arab world to expand economic, educational and political opportunity.

Some American commentators have criticized the $29 million Powell said was allocated for the initiative as such a small sum as to indicate a lack of seriousness about carrying out the project.

Last month, Powell told the Arabic newspaper Al Quds al Arabi, that while he respected Saudi culture, the kingdom "will have to start examining (its) traditions and … practices to see whether or not change is appropriate."

The Saudi government daily Okaz riposted that, "What Mr. Powell means by his plan to turn us into a modern society is … a society stripped of its identity, its values, and its virtues — an ugly society with no connection to its roots, which is only a pale mirror image of the West."

Turning to another issue, Maher joined other Arab governmental voices in denying that efforts were under way to get Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein to step down and go into voluntary exile so as to avoid U.S. military action to change the regime in Baghdad.

"We do not interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries and we are not concerned in deciding who is going to rule Iraq. Such matter should be decided by the Iraqi people itself," Maher said.

Monday Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal denied any Saudi or Arab initiative, effort or contacts to convince Saddam to step down or relinquish power for the sake of a peaceful settlement to the crisis over the Iraqi leader's efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

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