- The Washington Times - Monday, June 20, 2005

CAIRO — A high-profile visit today by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice may be less blessing than a curse for Ayman Nour, an opposition candidate in Egypt’s upcoming presidential elections.

The defensive tone with which Mr. Nour’s Al Ghad Party agreed to the meeting suggested that the candidate — whose detention in late January prompted Miss Rice to cancel an earlier visit — fears that the meeting might cost him more votes than it produces.

“In a meeting of the High Council … it has been decided that the Al Ghad Party will accept to enter into a dialogue with or exchange ideas with any person from within Egypt or from outside of Egypt whether a governmental official or not, except for people from or representing Israel,” said party spokeswoman Gamila Ismail.

“As such, we welcome discussions with any American or non-American official.”

In Cairo neighborhoods where Mr. Nour’s party is popular, posters and fliers regularly appear branding the candidate as a “stooge” of the Americans, who are widely mistrusted in Egypt and in much of the Arab world.

U.S. pressure helped persuade the government to release Mr. Nour in mid-March after six weeks of detention and let him run for president. But he still faces trial this month on charges of forging signatures to register his party — a trial that could disqualify him as a candidate in the September election.

Since coming to power with the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, President Hosni Mubarak has been unopposed in four presidential elections.

He is widely expected to seek a fifth term in September, and Egyptian officials acknowledge that he faces only token opposition.

In addition to Mr. Nour, Miss Rice is expected to meet with at least two others who have been publicly critical of the government’s democratic reforms. She also will meet with Mr. Mubarak and make a major policy speech at American University in Cairo.

Miss Rice rarely speaks in public without offering a ringing endorsement of democracy, a major focus of the White House in its drive to defeat global terrorism.

The Bush administration has been cautious in its criticism of Egypt, where until the late 1990s, Muslim terrorism included attacks on civilians and foreign tourists, the lifeblood of Egypt’s economy.

Although the nation is widely criticized for human rights abuses, its success in its war on terrorism in the 1990s was so complete that al Qaeda relies heavily on Egyptian leaders who fled to Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Before her departure last week on a six-day tour that includes stops in Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, Belgium and Britain, Miss Rice attempted to set the tone for today’s stop in Cairo.

She called Mr. Mubarak’s democratic reforms an “important first step.” But she added: “Is it enough? I think on an absolute scale, ‘no.’ More needs to be done.”

Both government and opposition figures are waiting to see how far Miss Rice will go today in both her public and private criticism of Egypt.

“I am glad that Rice is visiting so that she may assess for herself the realities on the ground,” said Mostafa El Fikki, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in Egypt’s parliament.

“My only concern is that it seems that she is concentrating … on meeting with the opposition, and I wish that she would make the time to meet with other objective members of Egyptian society, so that she may form a more accurate picture.”

The officially outlawed, but tolerated Muslim Brotherhood is the most powerful opponent of Mr. Mubarak and his government. It operates openly with a headquarters in downtown Cairo, and its officials are critical of any U.S. involvement in Egyptian politics.

“We do not place much weight on Rice’s visit to Egypt. We are careful to ensure that the Egyptian opposition movement in Egypt follows a path that is not dependent upon pressures from outside Egypt,” said Mohamed Habeeb, the brotherhood’s No. 2 official.

Police and pro-government thugs backed by police have regularly attacked opposition protests and arrested hundreds — both Islamist and secular opponents of the government.

Another opposition group, Kifaya, represents an eclectic mix of intellectuals. Although it includes some Islamists and former Islamists, its focus is primarily secular.

Like the Muslim Brotherhood, Kifaya has no interest in meeting with Miss Rice, insisting that there be no outside interference in Egypt’s democratic development, especially from the United States.

“We have nothing to do with Condoleezza Rice’s visit. She has been sent by the American government to meet with people from the Egyptian government. This is of no concern to us,” said George Ishak, a spokesman for Kifaya.

Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party controls nearly 90 percent of the seats in parliament, with the remainder divided among a smattering of small parties and independents.

Last week, just as Miss Rice was preparing to leave Washington, parliament passed new rules for presidential candidates, including one requiring that any candidate must prove he has a “clean financial record.”

With Egypt plagued with endemic corruption and only token opposition, critics fear that the government will use the rule to veto any candidate it has reason to fear.

“We do suffer bitterly from tyranny, but the people have to move and have to pressure the regime into changing its practices. Without the people mobilizing, no amount of external pressure will result in real change,” said the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mr. Habeeb.

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