- The Washington Times - Monday, June 20, 2005

CAIRO — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice challenged leaders in the Middle East yesterday to “abandon the excuses” for depriving their citizens of democracy, saying the rulers’ “fear of free choices” no longer justifies “the denial of liberty.”

In a forceful speech billed as the keynote address of her four-nation tour of the region, Miss Rice was more specific than any U.S. official has ever been about what Arab regimes must do in order to respond to the “inevitability” of a “fully free and democratic world.”

“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,” she told an audience of more than 600 students, academics, journalists and intellectuals at the American University in Cairo.

“Now, we are taking a different course: We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people,” she said.

Even though Miss Rice’s speech sounded themes familiar from President Bush’s second inaugural address in January, it was the most daring oration that any senior Western official has given while in the region.

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

As she urged Egypt to be “at the forefront” of democratic changes, Miss Rice denounced some of the practices of President Hosni Mubarak’sregime, such as its emergency law imposed with his rise to power in 1981 after the assassination of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat.

“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.

“The day must come when the rule of law replaces emergency decrees and when the independent judiciary replaces arbitrary justice.”

The speech did not provoke an enthusiastic response and drew only polite applause.

The secretary, who canceled plans to visit Egypt earlier this year partly to protest the detention of opposition leader Ayman Nour and other critics of Mr. Mubarak’s regime, met yesterday with Mr. Nour and other political figures.

Earlier in the morning, she visited with Mr. Mubarak at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik, after which she held a press conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit.

“What people on Earth don’t want to be able to say what they think or worship as they please or educate their boys and girls? What people on Earth want to be subject to the knock of the secret police at night?” she said standing beside Mr. Gheit.

The criticism of Mr. Mubarak’s rule was part of a diplomatic dance of speaking one’s mind while praising the object of reprimand.

In this case, Miss Rice’s compliment was for the Egyptian leader’s “wisdom and counsel,” from which “American presidents since Ronald Reagan have benefited.”

She also indulged Mr. Mubarak by saying the United States will not engage with the opposition Muslim Brotherhood, a banned Islamic group that is tolerated by the government.

Egypt, the most populous Arab country, is the second largest recipient of U.S. economic and military aid after Israel.

The secretary said Mr. Mubarak had “unlocked the door for change” by allowing multiparty elections after a five-decade absence. She was silent on restrictions imposed on who qualifies as a candidate, which have prompted democracy activists to denounce the reform as a “sham.”

She said, however, that 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.”

Mr. Gheit promised Miss Rice free, fair and transparent elections. Nevertheless, Mr. Mubarak is expected to win a fifth term in office in September.

As she went down her list of regimes that she said must change their ways, Miss Rice noted that “many people” in Saudi Arabia, where she flew after leaving Egypt, “pay an unfair price for exercising their basic rights.”

“Three individuals in particular are currently imprisoned for peacefully petitioning their government,” she said. “That should not be a crime in any country.”

In Iran, “the appearance of elections does not mask the organized cruelty of [a] theocratic state,” she said in a reference to last week’s presidential vote.

Miss Rice, who visited Israel, the West Bank and Jordan before Egypt and Saudi Arabia, flies to Brussels today to attend an international conference on Iraq.

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