CAIRO, Egypt (AP) – U.S. President George W. Bush’s difficulties seeding political freedom in the Middle East were clear by the questions at a chaotic and sometimes heated press conference U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice conducted with her Egyptian counterpart.
Rice was getting another firsthand look at the state of political freedom in the region on Wednesday, when she meets with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, now in his 25th year of authoritarian rule, and with political activists and dissidents.
Rice is making her first trip to the region since the surprise victory of the militant group Hamas in Palestinian elections last month. The United States supported those elections and Rice has said she has no regrets about the results, even though it complicates the future of international aid to the Palestinians and peace with Israel.
At Tuesday’s press conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, 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.”
Egypt has been a focus of U.S. efforts to bring greater democratic reform to the Middle East. But after last year’s presidential elections which returned Mubarak to power with a huge if questionable margin, and violence-tarnished parliamentary voting, the U.S. issued critical assessments.
That was compounded by the imprisonment of Ayman Nour, an opposition leader who came in second to Mubarak in the presidential vote.
“There have been disappointments and setbacks” as well as positive movement, Rice said. “We’ve talked candidly about this.”
Rice and Gheit interrupted one another, politely at first, but later with an edge. When Rice called Nour’s case a setback for democracy, Gheit’s face tightened.
“Due process has been applied,” Gheit said coolly, referring to Nour’s recent appeal of a stiff prison term on what the Bush administration has suggested are flimsy charges.
Also Tuesday, Gheit said it is premature to cut off international aid for a Palestinian government even if Hamas is at its helm, dashing the Bush administration’s hopes for an immediate, unified front against the militant Islamic group.
“We should give Hamas time,” Gheit said. “I’m sure that Hamas will develop, will evolve. We should not prejudge the issue.”