By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 22, 2006
CAIRO, Feb. 21 -- Egypt rejected U.S. efforts Tuesday to win international support for a clampdown on aid to the Palestinian Authority when Hamas ministers take power, arguing that the radical Islamic group should be given time to accept Israel.
"I'm sure that Hamas will develop, will evolve. We should not prejudge the issue," Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit told reporters at a news conference with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who arrived here on the first leg of a Middle East tour to line up support for the U.S. position.
Egypt does not provide much aid to the Palestinians but has broad influence in the Arab world on Israeli-Palestinian issues, so the rebuff could hamper Rice's efforts to build a united front against the rise of Hamas. On Wednesday, Rice flies to Saudi Arabia, and she will address officials from Arab countries in the Persian Gulf region on Thursday in the United Arab Emirates.
The lengthy news conference with Aboul Gheit, filled with banter and cross talk by the two diplomats, underscored the daunting and at times contradictory challenge Rice faces as she tries to fashion an international response to Hamas's unexpected victory in Palestinian legislative elections. In effect, she urged pressure on the victor of an election she has hailed as fair and transparent, while seeking the support of an autocratic government that she has demanded must become more free.
Addressing Egypt's faltering steps toward an open political system, Rice spoke vaguely of "disappointments and setbacks." Yet she mentioned the case of jailed activist Ayman Nour -- whom she championed last year -- only when prompted by a question. And she praised President Hosni Mubarak, who critics say manipulated elections last year to ensure the defeat of secular, moderate parties, as "a president who has sought the consent of the governed."
Before Rice arrived here this afternoon, government-owned newspapers heaped scorn on her for appearing to meddle in Egypt's internal affairs.
Hamas, formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, holds a majority in the new Palestinian legislature that was seated on Saturday and will form a cabinet over the next few weeks. But the group is listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department, making it all but impossible for the United States to provide anything beyond humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian Authority now that Hamas has a role in the government. Already, the Bush administration has demanded the return of $50 million in direct aid from the authority, while Israel over the weekend halted monthly payments of roughly $50 million in tax and customs revenue.
The administration has suggested aid could be continued until Hamas cabinet ministers formally are part of the Palestinian government. But then the aid spigot largely would be shut if Hamas takes power and does not recognize Israel or support a two-state peace plan.
U.S. officials say such pressure will force Hamas to meet those conditions. But other countries, particularly in the Middle East, say that approach will only increase Palestinians' suffering and force Hamas to seek funding from other sources, such as Iran. European countries -- especially Russia -- also have been ambivalent about the American approach.
Rice, who is to meet Mubarak on Wednesday, also met for 45 minutes with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who has wide connections in Hamas and the Palestinian world. She will also meet with Saudi Arabia's intelligence chief and has brought to her meetings the Treasury Department's top official on terrorist financing, Undersecretary Stuart Levey.
At the news conference, Aboul Gheit appeared to draw a distinction between the emerging Hamas-led cabinet and the Palestinian Authority presidency held by Mahmoud Abbas, suggesting that aid could continue indefinitely because Abbas wants to negotiate peace with Israel. "It is called the authority," he said. "And we support the authority," adding that Abbas "is the head of the authority, and his powers are still there."
Aboul Gheit reiterated that "it's only a matter of time" before Hamas recognizes the need to accept Israel and negotiate a peace settlement. Hamas leaders, however, have adamantly rejected such a move, saying the most they could consider at this point is a long-term truce if Israel withdraws from all the territory it occupied after the 1967 Middle East war.
Rice will also meet Wednesday with a small group of civil society activists, and she said she wanted to hear what has happened in the eight months since she called for greater democracy in a speech in Cairo. But she also said she would tell them that they needed to form parties and that there is "an obligation" on the opposition "to organize themselves and to be able to present a case to the Egyptian people."
Egyptian activists have complained that the government has thwarted the development of parties. Nour, for instance, was convicted of fraud for forging signatures on petitions to register his party; he has appealed his sentence, saying he was being punished for political reasons. Aboul Gheit defended the trial, asserting that "due process has been applied in the issue of this gentleman."
Aboul Gheit at one point enthusiastically interrupted Rice as she spoke about the difficulties of building democracy. "Tell them what you told us," he prompted her, about the "feelings of the South."
"Yes, I said that, look, the United States, as much as any country, has no reason to be arrogant about democracy," Rice said. "And a reason for humility: It was in my lifetime -- and I'm not that old -- in my lifetime, that the right to vote was guaranteed to African Americans in the South. So we've been through our own struggles in democracy."