Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who departs today on a diplomatically challenging visit to the Middle East, called the contested presidential elections planned for later this year in Egypt a "positive development" but said more needs to be done before Egypt can claim to have completely free elections.
"Democracy isn't a single-day event," Rice told reporters at her first full-scale Washington news conference as secretary of state. She said the Egyptian government must recognize that "a lot of people are going to be watching" to see whether candidates think they have been treated fairly, including having access to the government-controlled press.
"Is it enough? I think, on an absolute scale, no. More needs to be done," she said. But she said the "trend line" is going in a positive direction.
Rice said she plans to make a policy speech in Cairo, which aides said will focus on democratic change in the region, and also meet with civil-society activists. A State Department official said a list was still being worked out but Ayman Nour, the only opposition candidate challenging President Hosni Mubarak in the election, has been invited to meet with Rice as part of a group of parliamentarians and representatives of pro-democracy organizations.
Another official noted that one problem in arranging such meetings is that activists in the Middle East are often leery of being publicly associated with the United States.
Rice will begin her trip with a two-day stop in Israel and the West Bank, where she will meet with Israeli and Palestinian officials in an effort to prod them to cooperate more closely on Israeli's planned withdrawal this summer from the Gaza Strip. Rice met Wednesday with James D. Wolfensohn, the former World Bank president who is helping to lead an international effort to rebuild the Palestinian economy, to seek his insights and gauge his progress. Wolfensohn also will be in the region during her visit.
Only in recent weeks have Israeli and Palestinian officials begun to meet regularly to discuss the pullout, with key issues concerning the Israeli desire for security and the Palestinian demand for access in and out of Gaza still unresolved. "This will be very much focused on the preparations for the Gaza withdrawal," Rice said.
The Bush administration has also assigned Lt. Gen. William E. Ward to assist the Palestinians with an overhaul of their security organizations. But Israel has resisted a recent proposal by President Bush to broaden Ward's mandate to become more of a coordinator between Israel and the Palestinians.
In a rare slap at Israel, Rice criticized Israel's weapons sales to China. The United States recently won a diplomatic victory when it persuaded the European Union to back off plans to lift an arms embargo against China, and Rice signaled the United States would be equally tough on Israel's sales. "We have had some difficult discussions with the Israelis about this," she said.
Rice will also visit Jordan and Saudi Arabia before traveling to Belgium for a conference on Iraq. A key goal for the conference is to persuade nations -- particularly oil-rich Saudi Arabia -- to forgive as much as 80 percent of Iraq's debts built up under the rule of Saddam Hussein.