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."

After the address, Rice met for nearly an hour with Ayman Nour, the Egyptian opposition candidate whose campaign has been repeatedly harassed by the government, as well as seven other representatives of opposition parties and civil groups. There were no representatives from Kifaya, or Enough, the coalition of human rights, professional and legal organizations that began a drive last fall to unseat Mubarak.

In February, Rice canceled a planned visit to Egypt when the government did not immediately release Nour from jail on what U.S. officials said were trumped-up charges.

While in Egypt, Rice met with Mubarak at Sharm el-Sheikh, a resort area on the Sinai Peninsula. After the session, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit told reporters that the Egyptian government was committed to "free, fair and transparent" elections.

In Riyadh, the Saudi capital, Rice met with Crown Prince Abdullah, the kingdom's de facto ruler, and other officials. She later told reporters that she had raised the issue of the three jailed petitioners with the crown prince, reiterating that their actions "should not be a crime." But the foreign minister, Prince Saud Faisal, responded that they had broken Saudi laws and that the matter was therefore in the "hands of the court." Saud, who said he had not read a transcript of Rice's Cairo speech, asserted that Saudi Arabia would undertake reform at its own pace and in accordance with its traditions.

"I don't understand what the row is about, asking what type of reforms and what speed of reforms," Saud said.

Rice delivered her 25-minute speech in Cairo in workmanlike fashion, eliciting no applause from the audience of 600 until it was completed. She then took questions for 40 minutes.

After one questioner raised the reported mistreatment of the Koran, the Muslim holy book, by U.S. soldiers, Rice said the United States was built by people who fled religious persecution and that it "would never sanction for its personnel to somehow disrespect the great book of a great religion." She said the incidents involving the Koran were "overwhelmingly, simply mistakes by people, not intentioned." Her response brought loud applause.

As is her style, Rice was forceful in the question-and-answer session in both defending U.S. policy and acknowledging shortcomings in the U.S. past. At one point, she cited the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who she said was responsible for her having the position she holds now. He "always talked about making America true to ourselves," she said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice addresses an audience at the American University in Cairo. 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."