Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice abruptly postponed a visit to Egypt yesterday, reflecting deep displeasure at the jailing of a leading opposition figure, U.S. officials said.
Rice had planned to travel to Egypt and possibly other countries in the region after attending on Tuesday a conference on Palestinian reform in London. The trip was not officially announced, but Egyptian officials had said she would attend a conference on political and economic reform later in the week.
But after a tense meeting between Rice and Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit in Washington over the case of Ayman Nour -- during which Rice hinted she might skip the conference if the case was not resolved quickly -- the Egyptians six days ago postponed the conference.
Earlier this week, Nour, the head of the liberal Tomorrow Party, was reported to have been brutally interrogated, and the Egyptian Human Rights Organization issued a statement warning that his life is in danger.
It would have been considered a major diplomatic slight for Rice to travel to other major countries in the Middle East while skipping Egypt. So after returning from President Bush's European tour, Rice made the decision early yesterday to attend only the London conference.
State Department spokesman Richard A. Boucher did not formally cite the Nour case for the postponement, but several officials speaking on the condition of anonymity made clear it was a key factor.
"I think the Egyptians have gotten the message loudly and clearly," one official said, adding that it is evident the Egyptians canceled their conference because of Rice's demand regarding Nour but still expected her to come to Cairo.
A senior State Department official put it more gently, saying Rice wanted to give the Egyptians "some space" to deal with issues of democratic reform.
Egyptian Ambassador Nabil Fahmy said he was told that Rice "had been away for a long time" traveling with Bush and was not ready for another long trip. "I wouldn't read anything into it," he said.
Boucher told reporters that Rice expects to go to the region "at a fairly early date."
Staff writer Robin Wright contributed to this report.