CAIRO, March 9 -- Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit on Wednesday offered a point-by-point rebuttal of President Bush's argument that the Middle East is opening to an era of democracy stimulated by the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
In an interview, Aboul Gheit criticized Bush's speech Tuesday to the National Defense University at Fort McNair, in which the president listed elections held by Iraqis and Palestinians and anti-Syrian demonstrations in Lebanon as signs that "clearly and suddenly, the thaw has begun" in the largely authoritarian Middle East.
Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit says Egypt will set its own agenda.
"What model are we talking about in Iraq? Bombs are exploding everywhere, and Iraqis are killed every day in the streets," Aboul Gheit said. "Palestinian elections? There were elections seven years prior."
As for Lebanon, Aboul Gheit noted something that Bush did not: Tuesday's huge pro-Syrian demonstration mounted by Hezbollah, the Lebanese group that the State Department labels a terrorist organization. The rally showed that "there are other trends in society," Aboul Gheit said, warning that U.S. pressure might lead ethnically and religiously divided Lebanon into chaos.
"Maybe things will get better, but we see what we see," he concluded.
Aboul Gheit also criticized Bush for suggesting that for Egypt to keep pace with the shift toward democracy, it ought to carry out specific reforms to ensure competitive presidential elections in September. Hosni Mubarak has been the uncontested president of Egypt for 24 years.
Aboul Gheit's comments were in line with Egypt's criticism of what it has termed U.S.-engineered "regime change" in Iraq as well as with what it regards as U.S. interference in Arab affairs. But the vehemence with which the former U.N. ambassador expressed his concerns came during a period of unusually tense relations with the Bush administration.
Mubarak has yet to announce whether he will run in September. He has never had challengers in a direct popular vote; rather, his rule has been affirmed by referendums in which his was the only name on the ballot. Last month, Mubarak proposed amending Egypt's constitution to allow multi-candidate elections, although the conditions and details of who would be able to run have not been spelled out.
Bush made his own suggestions on Tuesday: "Like all free elections, these require freedom of assembly, multiple candidates, free access by those candidates to the media and the right to form political parties."
Aboul Gheit responded that in the "so-called democratic endeavor, the pace will be set by Egypt and the Egyptian people and only the Egyptian people. The Egyptian people will not accept what we call trusteeship.
"I think Egypt is a lighthouse for the Middle East. The need for Egypt to be a friend of the United States is something I'm sure people in Washington value very much. We are not subject to any kind of pressure."
Aboul Gheit expressed irritation at reports that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled a trip to Egypt because of its slow pace of reform. She called off a trip to the region, not just to Egypt, he insisted.
At the conclusion of the interview, he took issue with notions that Egypt is a police state. He did a pantomime of a pedestrian looking over his shoulder in fear, then led a reporter by the hand to his office window.
"I invite anyone to come to Egypt and see. We are not in shackles. We follow our own course independently," he said as the Nile flowed by below.