Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit criticized Monday the Bush administration's maiden effort to promote democracy in the Middle East, saying some Arab countries were snubbed and other countries attending the meeting should not have been invited.

The session, dubbed the "Forum for the Future," will be held on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly on Friday and will include key officials from a number of countries, including Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. The forum was established during the June summit of the Group of Eight industrialized countries, hosted by President Bush, and is intended to be a high-profile example of Bush's effort to prod countries in what the administration labels the "broader Middle East" to embrace democracy.

In an interview at Egypt's U.N. mission, Gheit complained that the administration did not invite such Arab countries as Libya and Syria, while including non-Arab countries such as Turkey and Afghanistan. "Apples and oranges," he said dismissively.

Egypt, a key U.S. ally whose president has held power for nearly a quarter-century, has been wary of the project from the beginning. Turkey has a flourishing democracy, while Afghanistan is struggling to hold its first presidential election next month.

"They might think that Turkey might be a model for a number of Arab countries to follow," Gheit said. He then added with a burst of laughter: "With Afghanistan, maybe they want to teach the Afghans how to pursue our own model. I think we are at least 200 years in advance of Afghanistan. The social and economic development of Egypt is by far a century or two ahead of Afghanistan."

A senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the countries attending the forum were a "self-selecting group" because the initiative is designed to support what countries are already doing to improve their societies. "This is broader than just Arab countries," he said, adding that "it was not exclusionary but as inclusionary as possible."

Gheit said the meeting really should focus on G-8 countries and the entire Arab world. "We are initiating only the first meeting of a process," he said. "Whether it will be taken seriously or not remains to be seen."

Under fire from Arab leaders, the Bush administration's proposal for promoting democracy in the Middle East has been repeatedly watered down since it was first floated earlier this year. The Forum for the Future is designed to bring together diplomats and representatives of businesses and civil society, focusing largely on such areas as education, job creation and development.