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Mideast: U.S. Foreign Secretary Tries To Solidify Support

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice intends to ask Middle Eastern governments to back Washington's approach to the new Palestinian government (epa) U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is embarking on a trip through the Middle East, hoping to enlist the support of regional governments for Washington’s campaign to isolate Hamas and the Iranian leadership. Rice arrives in Egypt today. She is also due to visit Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

21 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Condoleezza Rice’s first port of call is Egypt, the Arab’s world’s most populous country and a key regional ally for Washington.

On the agenda will be how to deal with Hamas, which is forming the new Palestinian government after winning a landslide electoral victory.

U.S. Caught Unprepared

Rice acknowledged earlier this month that the United States was caught unprepared by Hamas’s defeat of the more moderate Fatah Party, which had dominated Palestinian politics for years.

The United States designates Hamas as a terrorist organization. Under U.S. law, the government cannot fund terrorist groups, raising some basic questions about how Washington will deal with the Palestinians.

Mekelberg says there is a feeling in the United States and in the European Union that “something has to be done” about Iran.

U.S. officials say they will wait to see how the situation develops. But U.S. President George W. Bush has already declared that the United States will not work with Hamas until it disarms, renounces violence, and recognizes Israel’s right to exist.

Rice, in Cairo, will sound out Egyptian officials on their position and likely try to convince them to back Washington’s approach.

Middle Eastern Governments Caught In The Middle

As many commentators have noted, governments in Egypt and other Arab countries face a quandary. Like the United States, they fear the rise of popular Islamic movements. At the same time, they feel the need to distance themselves from Washington’s policies, in order not to fan even more discontent at home.

Yossi Mekelberg, a Middle East expert at Chatham House in London, tells RFE/RL the United States also faces a major problem as it advocates democracy around the region.

"This Catch-22 situation is not only faced by Arab governments," Mekelberg says. "It's the West that's facing it because on the one hand, the West pushes for democracy and democracy in the eyes of the West means first and foremost free elections. And then we look at the results of the elections and we don't like the results very much. And the reason for that is that we have failed in dealing with the root causes of fundamentalism."

So what are the root causes that are driving more people across the Middle East to support fundamentalists? Mekelberg says it is very basic: the failure by governments to improve living standards and provide their people with opportunities. Now that voters can express their discontent at the ballot box, that is precisely what they are doing.

The Results Of Democracy

"[Radical Islamic movements] enjoy popular support because the governments have failed their populations," Mekelberg says. "Whether it's the issue of development and gender equality or poverty and education, democracy and human rights. On all of these issues, the governments have failed their citizens. And they have reacted. And now they don't even need to rebel violently because there are elections. They can just go to the ballot box and express their frustration, and disenchantment with the government."

Hamas leader Khalid Mashaal (right) meeting in Tehran on 20 February with Iranian President Ahmadinejad (Fars)

Now, there is the added complication of Iran and its very assertive foreign policy, not only on the nuclear front but also regarding Hamas.

"Today, Khaleed Meshaal, one of the senior leaders of Hamas visited Tehran and got the full backing of Iran," Mekelberg says. "They promised him: 'Don't worry about money.' They said: 'We'll find the money for you. [If there is] any shortfall from the international community, we'll find the money for you.' So yes, Condoleezza Rice is aiming to find out how the moderate forces in the Middle East -- and we can say also the more conservative forces in the Middle East -- how they are going to deal with this new challenge."

Dealing With Iran

Mekelberg says there is a feeling in the United States and in the European Union that “something has to be done” about Iran.

Rice has made that point many times, as she did last week in her appearance before the U.S. Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee.

"The international community is going to have to act and act decisively if Iran is to know that there is a consequence for their open defiance of the international community, and so we are working on precisely that," Rice told senators last week.

During her visit to the Middle East, Rice is likely to seek to determine whether Arab states are prepared to support Washington and Brussels in their tough stance against Tehran.