CAIRO, Egypt – Karen Hughes (search), attempting to quell anti-American sentiments abroad, is on a listening tour in the Middle East for her first assignment as the State Department’s top public relations official.
On Monday, Hughes spent her second day in Egypt in part aboard a Nile River cruise ship with alumni of various U.S.-Egyptian exchange programs. Hughes’ questioned them about their experiences in the United States and asked for suggestions to improve the nation’s image.
While some alumni said they were grateful for their experiences and emphasized affection for Americans, others said politics ruins everything, an opinion that Hughes said many Americans would agree with. Still, she said, it is a needed discussion, “even though I know it can be divisive.”
Hughes also met with sheikhs and students in Cairo to ask their views on the United States and relations with Egypt, and visited with Egyptian government officials and leaders. She is scheduled to also visit Saudi Arabia and Turkey, on Tuesday addressing students at Dar al-Hekma College, hosting a lunch with Saudi journalists and meeting with King Abdullah.
A former political adviser to President Bush (search), Hughes' job as Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, has a mission of global dimensions.
At her swearing-in Sept 9, Bush said that Hughes' job will be "to improve our governments' capabilities to confront terrorist propaganda quickly before myths have time to take root in the hearts and minds of people across the world."
Dina Powell (search), an Egyptian-American recently named assistant secretary of state for promoting educational and cultural exchange, accompanied Hughes as she met with alumni to push for “interfaith dialogue” to help bridge the gap between America and the Middle East.
Rasha el Diasty, an alumna, criticized past diplomacy efforts, such as a comment from a U.S. official about the war in Iraq being a “fair, just cause.”
Diasty said that comment was “completely ignoring the fact that most people here don’t think it’s a just cause…The language of dialogue must be changed.”
Also on Monday, Hughes met with a group of leaders Monday at a lunch meeting.
Powell rejected suggestions during a briefing with reporters that Hughes had only set up meetings with pro-U.S. parties, adding that there were a variety of opinions.
There were “very different views of the role American policy should play,” Powell said.
Some leaders suggested that America pushes its policies too much and doesn’t allow countries to manage their own affairs, while others said more pressure is needed.
But both sides agreed that more exchange between the United States and Egypt is needed, especially through lawmakers and government officials.
Meanwhile, during Hughes' meeting with Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, she told him that the United States wants upcoming parliamentary elections to be more open than the past.
When reporters asked Hughes whether President Hosni Mubarak would follow through on reforms he touted before his election, she said he had confirmed his government’s intention to meet those goals.
Earlier in her visit, Hughes praised Sheik Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, an Egyptian educator and Al-Azhar, his school which is Sunni Islam’s most prestigious learning institution, for the courage to speak out against terrorism.
Al-Azhar was one of the first religious institutions to condemn the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
"The reason that I choose this meeting, as my first meeting on my first trip to the Middle East is to talk about the courage of this institution," said Hughes. "I praised Sheik Tantawi for his courage, and he said it is not courage but I did the right thing to speak out against terrorism and extremism."
But the editor-in-chief of Egypt's pro-government al-Gomhouria newspaper said in Monday's edition that Hughes' trip to the Middle East would fail.
Enmity in the Arab world for America is because of its policies and "makeup won't work," Mohammed Ali Ibrahim wrote in a column titled, "An American Facelift in Cairo."
The United States has tried reaching out directly to Arabs in other ways, most recently through the Arabic-language Satellite network Al-Hurra, Radio Sawa, and a slick Arabic-English magazine, "hi," which shies away from politics to inform the Arab world of American culture and life. None of the three appears to be widely popular.
FOX News’ Teri Schultz and The Associated Press contributed to this report.