ASWAN, Egypt – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was strongly criticized by the foreign minister Saturday for suggesting that proposed changes to Egypt's constitution may be less than democratic.
Rice is holding talks with Arab foreign ministers over the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. She hopes to rally wider Arab support for the stalled effort to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians and to encourage flexibility from Arab nations that have not made peace with Israel.
But her visit also coincides with a political storm in Egypt over planned constitutional amendments that the Egyptian opposition has denounced as a blow to democracy in this close U.S. ally.
The government hastily scheduled a referendum on the amendments for Monday. The opposition has said it will boycott.
Rice told reporters before she left Washington on Friday that she was "really concerned" about the referendum.
"The Egyptians set certain expectations themselves about what this referendum would achieve and the hope that this would be a process that gave voice to all Egyptians," Rice said. "I think there's some danger that that hope is not going to be met."
She described Egypt as "one of the key countries" in the Middle East as the region "moves toward greater openness and greater pluralism and greater democratization. Egypt ought to be in the lead in that and it is disappointing that that has not happened."
Even before Rice's arrival in Aswan, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit leveled harsh criticism against the Bush administration's chief diplomat.
"Even if Egypt and the United States have a friendly, strategic relationship, Egypt can't accept interference in its affairs from any of its friends," Aboul Gheit said.
"It is unimaginable that someone would speak about and judge an Egyptian internal political process before it even starts," Aboul Gheit said.
Egypt's parliament — dominated by ruling party lawmakers — approved 34 amendments to the constitution. These measures, according to President Hosni Mubarak, are intended to expand. The opposition, however, says the amendments would restrict freedoms and cement Mubarak's hold on power.
Rice and her Egyptian counterpart planned to meet Saturday as part of a gathering of four key U.S. allies in the Arab world. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates are part of what Rice calls a moderate bloc, although all have dynastic or authoritarian governments.
Besides foreign ministers from those nations, Rice set up a separate meeting with intelligence and security chiefs. The aim is to blunt the effectiveness of Islamic Hamas militants who now share power in the Palestinian territories.
Before she left Washington, Rice said she hoped Arab states soon would recommit to an old offer for a broad peace with Israel and be willing to negotiate with the Jewish state.
Arab states have pushed the U.S. to do more to resolve the Palestinian issue, an effort Rice apparently has taken to heart. At the same time, she has urged Arab allies to consider parallel overtures that could strengthen her hand.
"You need the energy and the help of moving forward on the Arab-Israeli side not at the end of the process but earlier," Rice told reporters.
Among Arab states, only Egypt and Jordan have made peace with Israel. U.S. officials say other Arab states have too often seen their separate peace with Israel as a bonus that Israel might win only after accommodation with the Palestinians.
Rice's trip was timed in part so that she can see Arab leaders and diplomats ahead of an Arab summit later this month. That meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, is expected to revive a mothballed 2002 Arab proposal for blanket peace with Israel.
The top U.S. diplomat will shuttle between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Jerusalem and the West Bank, but she tried to lower expectations for that part of her mission.
"It's almost at this point more important, given the upcoming Riyadh summit, to have the discussion with the Arabs about relaunching the Arab initiative," Rice said.
Although Rice denied reports from some Arab diplomats that she had asked for changes in the original proposal, she said it should be revived "in a way that leaves open the possibility for active diplomacy based on it, not just putting it in the middle of the table and leaving it at that."
The Arab plan offers Israel diplomatic recognition and peace in return for full withdrawal from the land Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war, plus the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. It also calls for allowing Palestinian refugees the right to return to homes in Israel.
Israel initially rejected the plan, and is particularly opposed to its granting the right of return to Palestinian refugees and their descendants.
Now Rice is trying to nudge Arab leaders to regard the proposal as a starting point for talks.