Rice Criticizes Allies In Call for Democracy

Secretary Rice meets with reformers in Cairo, where she also had mild praise for President Hosni Mubarak, saying he had
Secretary Rice meets with reformers in Cairo, where she also had mild praise for President Hosni Mubarak, saying he had "unlocked the door for change." (By Amr Nabil -- Associated Press)
By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 21, 2005

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, June 20 -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday sharply criticized Egypt and Saudi Arabia for democratic failings, mounting a direct challenge to autocratic U.S. allies in the Middle East and calling on governments in the region to embrace "certain basic rights for all their citizens."

"Throughout the Middle East, the fear of free choices can no longer justify the denial of liberty," Rice told an invitation-only audience of government officials, academics and diplomats at the American University in Cairo. "It is time to abandon the excuses that are made to avoid the hard work of democracy."

She later traveled to Saudi Arabia, where "many people pay an unfair price for exercising their basic rights," she said.

President Bush has made promotion of democracy a hallmark of his second term, but this was the first time a senior U.S. official has delivered that message in the heart of the Middle East. Rice mixed tough-minded rhetoric with assurances that the Bush administration was not planning to impose democracy. The United States, she said, "has no cause for false pride and we have every reason for humility," because of its history of slavery and racism.

Rice was much tougher on Iran and Syria, two countries often in disagreement with the United States, than she was on Egypt and Saudi Arabia, two longtime U.S. partners with virtually no history of representative government. She denounced the "organized cruelty of Iran's theocratic state" and called on Syria "to make the strategic choice to join the progress all around it."

Rice offered mild praise for President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, who has ruled since 1981, for having "unlocked the door for change" by agreeing for the first time to allow an opposition candidate to run against him. The move was "encouraging," she said, but now "the Egyptian government must put its faith in its own people." She called on Mubarak to end violent attacks on pro-democracy demonstrators, stop "arbitrary justice" and lift emergency decrees allowing the police to break up gatherings of more than five people.

First lady Laura Bush, in Egypt last month, described Mubarak's move as a "very bold step," infuriating opposition groups that regard it as a sham. Rice's carefully calibrated message appeared designed to mitigate criticism following the first lady's remarks.

Rice spent nearly an hour talking to leaders of sanctioned opposition parties in Egypt. But she said the United States would obey Egyptian law and maintain no contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is Egypt's largest opposition movement and has been banned from political activity since 1954. The refusal to meet with the Brotherhood was a nod to the sensitivities of the Egyptian government, since Rice has riled other governments -- such as Belarus's two months ago -- by meeting with dissidents.

In her remarks on Saudi Arabia, Rice noted that three people who petitioned the monarchy to adopt a constitutional system had been jailed on charges of trying to encourage dissent. "That should not be a crime in any country," Rice said.

In the speech, the secretary said governments must protect "certain basic rights for all their citizens," including "the right to speak freely, the right to associate, the right to worship as you wish, the freedom to educate your children -- boys and girls -- and the freedom from the midnight knock of the secret police."

She also made an impassioned plea for women's rights in the Middle East. "Half a democracy is not a democracy," she said.

Meanwhile, Rice decried groups such as Hamas, a militant Islamic movement labeled a terrorist organization by the United States that has been successful in recent local Palestinian elections. "For all citizens with grievances, democracy can be a path to lasting justice," Rice said. "But the democratic system cannot function if certain groups have one foot in the realm of politics and one foot in the camp of terror."

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