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Middle East: Reactions Mixed On Rice's Democracy Message

  • Jeffrey Donovan

Condoleezza Rice (file photo) U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has wrapped up a tour of the Middle East in which she strongly criticized U.S.-allied governments in the region for failing to live up to democratic standards. The criticism was some of the strongest ever by a senior U.S. official, and comes amid a concerted U.S. campaign to spread democracy throughout the Muslim world. But not everyone in the Middle East was happy to hear Rice's words.

Prague, 21 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday delivered her strongest words in a major speech to 600 Egyptian students, academics, and officials at Cairo's American University.

Explaining America's new democracy drive, Rice said after the attacks of September 2001, the United States can no longer afford to seek stability in the Middle East if it comes at the expense of political and economic freedom:

"For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspiration of all people," Rice said.

Rice went on to criticize emergency law, arbitrary justice, and violence against peaceful demonstrators in Egypt, and called on Cairo to "put its faith" in the people. She also urged political freedom in Saudi Arabia, where she arrived today before heading later to Brussels for a conference on Iraq.

In September, Egypt for the first time will hold direct presidential elections with more than one candidate. Rice said that was encouraging, though analysts say President Hosni Mubarak is unlikely to face a serious rival.

While Rice also sought to encourage signs of reform in Saudi Arabia, her calls were met with a cool response from both Cairo and Riyadh. And analysts say that while she may have pleased some activists, other democracy advocates appear less impressed with Washington's new policy:

"No, this is not progress. If we look in Egypt, the regime, or in Kuwait or in Saudi Arabia, they are allies of the United States policy. It is such a double-standards policy," said Ameer Makhoul, a political analyst who directs Ittijah, an umbrella group of Palestinian nongovernmental organizations within Israel. Makhoul just returned from a forum in Barcelona on political and social issues in countries on the Mediterranean.

He told RFE/RL that the forum's Arab participants mostly agreed that the new U.S. policy is complicating the efforts of Middle East democracy activists. He said the activists have long sought -- and paid the price for seeking -- concrete political change and not merely superficial "reforms."

"There was a semi-consensus within the Arab voice -- of the people's voice and social movements' voice -- that they are opposing the American voice. They look at the American interference as disturbing the people's original demands for democratization and for reforms. People, in fact, are not seeking reforms. They are seeking more change -- social and political change. Economic change," Makhoul said.

Makhoul adds that Rice, when she visited the Palestinian territories prior to traveling to Egypt, spoke exclusively of security issues.
"No, this is not progress. If we look in Egypt, the regime, or in Kuwait or in Saudi Arabia, they are allies of the United States policy. It is such a double-standards policy." - analyst


Nonetheless, human rights campaigners hailed Rice for stating that Egyptian activists are not free from violence. Rice was referring to an incident in which Mubarak supporters beat up democracy protesters and molested female demonstrators in Cairo on 25 May, the day Egypt held a referendum on changing the presidential elections.

And in Saudi Arabia, Rice criticized the kingdom for jailing three activists last month after they petitioned for the monarchy to move toward a constitutional government model, saying appeals for reform were not a crime.

It's this kind of criticism that reformers want to hear from Washington, says Ayed S.R. Manna, a university professor and advisor to the Kuwait Journalists' Association.

"Definitely, these remarks, for the people who want reforms -- especially the liberals, elite, well-educated people -- it sounds very good, because people want more pressure on their own governments, not only in the Arab region but in the Third World as a whole. And this pressure might bring about a kind of participation [in government] by the [opposition] political forums or the political parties," Manna said.

Manna was speaking the day after the first woman was sworn in as a member of Kuwait's parliament. The swearing in was met with heckling by Islamist and conservative parliamentarians.

Kuwaiti women will have right vote for the first time in parliamentary elections next year, and Manna credits the new U.S. campaign for partly spurring recent reforms in Kuwait and elsewhere.

"I cannot deny the role of the Americans in pushing forward for women's equality and also, a little bit, convincing the governments -- whether in Kuwait or another country, but I'm talking about Kuwait -- that the time has already arrived for women to participate in the parliament and also in the cabinet on equal terms with men," Manna said.

Meanwhile, officials in both Saudi Arabia and Egypt dismissed Rice's remarks, though in different ways.

Ducking the issue, Egypt's foreign minister told a joint news conference said that the world was very angry with America due to scandals involving prisoner abuse in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay.

And in Riyadh, at another joint news conference, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said he had not read Rice's Cairo speech and added his country, home to Islam's holiest cities, could not accept reforms from outside.

Saudi officials also told Rice that the three activists she had defended had broken the law -- and that the government would not intervene on their behalf.
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