ASWAN, Egypt – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Sunday she raised U.S. criticism of Egyptian democracy efforts with President Hosni Mubarak, but added the United States would not try to dictate how Egypt should proceed.
"I've made my concerns known, as well as my hopes, for continued reform here in Egypt," Rice told a news conference in this southern city after talks with the Egyptian president and foreign minister. "The process of reform is one that is difficult — it's going to have its ups and downs."
Rice's latest trip to the Middle East coincides with a political storm in Egypt over the terms and timing of a national vote on constitutional changes.
The Bush administration has expressed concern that Monday's vote will be less than fair and democratic.
Tension over the vote shadowed Rice's attempts to rally Arab support for a renewed peace effort with Israel. But at a press conference she and her Egyptian counterpart tried put the best face on the dispute.
"Egypt is very special, Egypt is a leader in the Arab world," Rice told reporters. "So it's not surprising people are interested in what is happening internally in Egypt ... It's not a matter to try to dictate to Egypt how this will unfold."
She added, however, that the United States would not shy away from its commitment to wider democracy in the region.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit defended the hasty timeline for the vote, which opposition groups say gives little time for rebuttal. He said the timing is largely a matter of convenience for Egyptians who want to take spring vacations.
But irritation over the external criticism and the questions it produced was obvious.
"I have to be blunt with you," Gheit said. "With all frankness, the responsibility of security in Egypt is an Egyptian responsibility."
The proposed constitutional changes would enshrine tough anti-terrorism laws into Egypt's constitution — something opponents say could lead to continued police and judicial abuses. They also would outlaw political parties based on religion, effectively blunting the country's main opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood.
Opponents of the reforms have called a demonstration in central Cairo for later Sunday. They argue the changes would reduce the independent oversight of elections and curbs of election fraud, a chronic problem in Egypt.