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Saudis Tell Rice They Won't Isolate Hamas

Saudi Arabia on Wednesday became the second Arab ally in as many days to reject the U.S. strategy of financially isolating Hamas if the terrorist group does not moderate its policies as leader of the Palestinians.

As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sat nearby, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said through a translator, "We wish not to link financial assistance to the Palestinian people to issues other than their dire humanitarian needs."

A day earlier, Rice had stood by as Saud's Egyptian counterpart said it was premature to cut off aid to a Hamas-led government.

Saud and Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said the world should not "prejudge" Hamas, whose sweep in Palestinian elections last month stunned Washington and threw the Israeli-Palestinian peace process into new turmoil.

Earlier Wednesday, Rice pledged to a group of Egyptian democracy activists in Cairo that the United States would continue applying pressure on Egypt's government to meet its promises of reform.

"One good thing about having the president stand for election and ask for the consent of the governed is that there is a program," Rice told a group of dissidents, editors and professors.

The session followed a breakfast with President Hosni Mubarak, who according to his spokesman reiterated to Rice that Egypt will not bow to U.S. efforts to cut off international aid to the Palestinian government.

Mubarak "emphasized the importance of giving Hamas enough time to assess the current situation and define its positions according to the demands of President Mahmoud Abbas," said presidential spokesman Suleiman Awad.

Awad said U.S.-Egyptian ties were "strategic and deep," but added, "Egypt's decisions are made inside Egypt, not in any other capital or place, despite its interest in advice from its friends."

Rice did not give any details of what she and Mubarak discussed.

Mubarak has pledged a variety of domestic reforms that have yet to come to pass.

Several of the activists told Rice that Mubarak is setting up a false choice between his autocratic rule and the leader of Egypt's Islamic political movement, the Muslim Brotherhood.

The activists did not agree, however, on how Rice should react to the Brotherhood, which is banned in Egypt. Rice has refused to meet with and Muslim Brotherhood members and they were not represented at Wednesday's meeting.

"Eliminating the Muslim Brothers is totally non-democratic," said Tarek Heggy, a writer and former petroleum executive. "The issue is how can we compete with them."

Rice made a point of telling the group that she found at least one of the cartoon images of the Prophet Muhammad that have inflamed the Muslim world to be "offensive personally." But she said the violent reaction to publication of the cartoons was "wrong and in some cases manufactured."

A sometimes heated press conference with Gheit in Cairo illustrated the difficulties the Bush administration is meeting in seeding political freedom in the Middle East.

Rice was asked whether the United States intended to impose a "democracy of torture" and human rights abuses. That, the reporter suggested, is what the United States has wrought in Iraq.

Others wanted to know why the United States is focused only on Iran's nuclear ambitions instead of on the nuclear weapons held by Israel, and whether the Bush administration might bomb Iran.

"Our aspiration is not that people will have an American-style democracy. American-style democracy is for Americans," Rice said. "But that there will be a democracy that is for Egypt or for Iraq or for any other people on this Earth, because democracy is the only form of government in which human beings truly get to express themselves."