- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 21, 2006

CAIRO — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday clashed publicly with the Egyptian government over “disappointments and setbacks” in the key Muslim country’s democratic reforms and on how to treat the future Hamas government in the Palestinian territories.

On the first stop of a three-nation Middle East trip, Miss Rice was greeted in Cairo with a rejection of Washington’s call to the international community not to support the militant Hamas financially and otherwise unless it renounces violence and recognizes Israel.

“When it comes to Hamas, I don’t think anybody is in the business of penalizing the Palestinian people,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said at a press conference with the secretary.

Unlike Miss Rice, who made a distinction between financing a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority and donating humanitarian aid to the Palestinians through the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations, Mr. Gheit equated the two.

“We support the [Palestinian] Authority, and the authority is in the service of the Palestinian people,” he said. “We should give Hamas time. I’m sure that Hamas will develop, will evolve. We should not prejudge the issue.”

Egypt is by no means a major donor to the Palestinian Authority, which receives most of its $1 billion in aid from the West and would not be able to function without international assistance. The authority’s annual budget is $1.9 billion.

But Cairo has significant influence in the Arab world, and Mr. Gheit’s comments were not what Miss Rice wanted to hear at the beginning of her first visit to the region since Hamas’ election victory last month.

Last month, the United States persuaded its partners in the so-called Quartet — the European Union, the United Nations and Russia — to back its threat to cut off aid unless Hamas changes its ways.

Miss Rice yesterday reiterated Washington’s support for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who formally asked Hamas to form a government just before she arrived in Cairo.

During her appearance with Mr. Gheit — one of the liveliest and most confrontational, albeit polite, since she took office 13 months ago — the secretary repeatedly criticized President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, including its recent decision to postpone municipal elections.

“There have been disappointments and setbacks as well, and we have talked candidly about those, because the United States comes to discuss these issues as a friend, not as a judge,” Miss Rice said.

Except for “disappointment” and “candid” — meaning, frustration and contentious, respectively — she abandoned diplomatic speech and kept hammering on the need for democracy, standing next to Mr. Gheit, who had an uncomfortable smirk on his face.

She criticized the jailing of presidential runner-up and opposition Ghad party leader Ayman Nur late last year, a few months after he had met with Miss Rice during an event with civil society leaders in Cairo.

She has scheduled another such meeting for today, following breakfast with Mr. Mubarak. She then flies to Saudi Arabia.

“There was an obligation on the part of the opposition to organize itself and to be able to present a case to the Egyptian people,” she said in a not-so-subtle appeal to opposition groups to offer an alternative to Mr. Mubarak’s regime.

“We are going to stay on a course of continuing to discuss reform, continuing to discuss the forward move toward democracy, continuing to listen to all voices in Egyptian society, because it is really very critical that Egypt lead in this area,” she said.

Miss Rice and Mr. Gheit had another disagreement — this one over the action of the International Atomic Energy Agency this month to report Iran’s nuclear program to the U.N. Security Council.

“This is not a referral,” Mr. Gheit said, meaning that a referral carries more weight.

“In fact, it is,” Miss Rice intervened.

“There, we differ,” Mr. Gheit conceded.

An IAEA referral must be taken up by the U.N. council immediately. There is no such requirement on a matter simply reported to the U.N. body.

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