CAIRO, Egypt – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a forceful case for democracy in the Muslim world Monday, telling Egypt's conservative government leaders "the fear of free choices can no longer justify the denial of liberty."
Rice's remarks were to some 700 invited government officials, academics and other guests at the American University in Cairo (search).
The setting is notable, both because Egypt plans multiparty elections in the fall and because the Bush administration has made no secret of its dissatisfaction with political progress and the treatment of opposition figures by the government of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (search).
"For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither," Rice said. "Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people."
She noted that President Bush, in his second inaugural address, said the U.S. would not try to impose an American style of government on the unwilling and that the goal of his administration was to help others find their own voice.
"Throughout the Middle East the fear of free of choices can no longer justify the denial of liberty. It is time to abandon the excuses that are made to avoid the hard work of democracy," Rice said.
Rice took the governments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, both close U.S. allies, to task for cracking down on dissent.
In Saudi Arabia, she noted, three people are currently in jail for petitioning the government.
"That should not be a crime in any country," she said.
She lauded Mubarak for calling for elections but said she was concerned for the future of Egypt's reforms because of the violence that has faced "peaceful supporters of democracy."
"President Mubarak has unlocked the door for change. Now, the Egyptian government must put its faith in its own people," Rice said. "The Egyptian government must fulfill the promise it has made to its people, and to the entire world, by giving its citizens the freedom to choose."
Rice also offered a brief checklist for democracy to both supporters and opponents of established governments.
"They must accept the rule of law. They must reject violence. They must respect the standards of free elections. And they must peacefully accept the results," she told her audience.
Rice also delivered a blunt slap at Hamas (search), which the U.S. labels a terrorist organization but which is a growing political force across the Mideast.
"For all citizens with grievances democracy can be a path to lasting justice. 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," Rice said.
Following her speech, Rice took questions from several audience members, telling them the United States would abide by Egypt law and have no contact with the Muslim Brotherhood (search), the banned Islamic group that is Egypt's largest opposition movement.
She also delivered a lengthy defense of U.S. actions and principles in the treatment of prisoners and the Koran holy book.
Earlier Monday at a news conference in Sharm el Sheik, Rice said the world will be watching the elections. Her Egyptian counterpart promised the voting will be free, fair and open.
"Who would object to fair and transparent elections?" Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said. "It will be so, I assure you."
Abdel Halim Kandil, a member of the opposition group Kifaya, said his organization was boycotting Rice's speech and visit because reformers in Egypt don't want to seek the help of a "big dictator" against a "small dictator."
"We believe the U.S. administration is not making a serious effort to support reformers," he said.
Rice said she had discussed preparations for the elections with Mubarak, who surprised Washington and other Arab nations this spring when he announced his country would hold its first ever multiparty elections.
Limits on who can run and scattered violence and thuggery during a preparatory referendum raised international doubt that Mubarak is serious about reform.
But the Bush administration has mostly praised Mubarak, while thrashing Iran's Islamic leadership for placing somewhat similar limitations on the slate of candidates in elections this past weekend.
Rice said the Egyptian voting must include an opportunity for opposition candidates to air their messages and said it is important "that there be a sense of competition."
"I believe our Egyptian friends understand that and that they will take their responsibility seriously because people will watch what happens in Egypt." Rice said.
Rice also said the U.S. is not passing judgment on other countries but is offering the world an example of open government where dissent and controversy are commonplace.
"What people on earth don't want to be able to say what they think and worship as they please," Rice said.
Aboul Gheit said he told Rice the allegations of mistreatment of the Quran and abuse of prisoners by American troops at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq resonated strongly in the Arab world.
"I told you also that there is anger in the region and that we have to work on this anger," Aboul Gheit said, looking directly at Rice.
Rice is midway through a Middle East tour marked by two main themes: the importance of success in the on-again, off-again Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the more nebulous notion that democracy is a realistic antidote for hopelessness and hatred.