By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 25, 2006
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates, Feb. 24 -- When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a high-profile tour of Egypt and Saudi Arabia last June, she confronted those governments about opening up their political systems. Revisiting both countries this week, however, her call for greater democracy appeared more muted, as some of the aftershocks of the democracy push have given autocratic governments more leverage in their dealings with the United States.
The Bush administration had advocated legislative elections in the Palestinian territories as a way to reinvigorate Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but the move resulted in a sweeping victory last month by the radical Islamic group Hamas. Now, in order to restore hopes for reviving stalled peace talks, the United States needs the help of Egyptian and Saudi leaders to press Hamas to moderate its unyielding demand for Israel's destruction.
Rice did win Arab agreement that the incoming Palestinian cabinet must support peace talks with Israel. But while the United States plans to cut aid to the Palestinians immediately after Hamas members are given posts in the cabinet, both Egypt and Saudi Arabia urged patience before acting against Hamas -- time both countries can also use to fend off U.S. demands for greater democracy.
Other foreign policy goals on Rice's agenda this week -- such as seeking agreement to confront Iran over its nuclear program and enlisting Arab support for the new Iraqi government as bloody sectarian violence erupted -- also appeared to overshadow the administration's democracy campaign.
Egypt, which U.S. officials describe as enormously influential with Hamas, signaled it could shrug off U.S. pressure when it canceled local elections on the eve of Rice's visit. And after Rice left Cairo for Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Wednesday, the Egyptian government brought new charges against jailed presidential candidate Ayman Nour, and even against Nour's wife for holding rallies about her husband's case.
Nour had met with Rice during her visit in June, but he has since been convicted for campaign-related violations after a politicized trial. The Bush administration showed its displeasure by suspending talks on a free trade agreement. But Rice brought up Nour's case in public only when reporters asked about it.
In Cairo, Rice met with Egypt's intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, for nearly two hours, seeking his insights on Hamas. The session with Suleiman was longer than a lively meeting Rice held with democracy activists. They urged the United States to put more pressure on Egypt before President Hosni Mubarak succeeds in crippling moderate, secular groups.
The activists told Rice that Mubarak -- who has ruled Egypt for a quarter-century -- was trying to eliminate all opposition but the Muslim Brotherhood in order to make the choice between his rule and democracy even starker for the United States.
On her trip, Rice acknowledged that there had been "disappointments and setbacks" in Egypt, but she also praised Mubarak for allowing a multiparty presidential election for the first time, calling him a "wise man."
Rice bristled when asked if she was sending a signal that democracy had moved lower on the U.S. agenda. "I don't think that there can be any doubt that the United States remains strongly -- and I want to underline 'strongly' -- committed to democracy," she said. "We believe that people ought to be given a choice, and that when they are not given a choice, the pressures fill in unproductive ways."
In Saudi Arabia, Rice made only a brief reference to continuing a dialogue with King Abdullah on "the course of internal reform." In June, Rice had raised the issue of three jailed petitioners; they were later released. But in November, when the United States launched a "strategic dialogue" with the kingdom, none of six U.S.-Saudi discussion groups were tasked to deal with political reform.
In the Arab world, the impression left by Rice's trip -- which also included stops in Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates -- was that she was on a mission to round up support to punish a series of U.S. enemies, such as Hamas, Iran and Syria. The campaign against Hamas, formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, drew particular scorn because it was seen as hypocritical to want to punish a group that had achieved power through democratic elections. The United States and the European Union have designated Hamas a terrorist organization.
The skepticism in the region was reflected in the blunt questions posed to Rice by Arab journalists.
In Saudi Arabia, a female journalist, dressed head to toe in a black abaya , demanded: "How is it possible to harmonize the U.S. position as a nation supporting freedom of expression and the right of people to practice democracy with your effort to curb the will of Hamas?"
Egyptian Television's Mervat Mohsen also rattled off a series of tough questions. "American calls for democracy have unwittingly brought unprecedented support for the Muslim Brotherhood, but you're not happy with the Muslim Brotherhood in power," he said. "Is this some kind of designer's democracy then, Dr. Rice?"