Rice voices concern over crackdown on journalists, dissidents in Egypt

Rice voices concern over crackdown on journalists, dissidents in Egypt

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice voiced Washington”s concern Tuesdsay over a crackdown on journalists and dissidents by key Arab ally Egypt, bringing a prickly exchange with Egypt”s foreign minister.

The exchange — though polite — reflected underlying tensions over democratic reforms in U.S. and Egyptian relations. Egypt has responded brusquely to past American criticism over human rights violations and pressure to bring greater democracy.

At a press conference alongside Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit that focused on Mideast peace efforts, Rice said she had also raised with him and President Hosni Mubarak the issue of jailed opposition politician Ayman Nour. “We always raise these issues in the spirit of friendship,” she said.

When Rice said she had discussed “internal and political developments” in Egypt, Aboul Gheit interjected that there are “positive” developments. Rice acknowledged that “positive things are happening” but then added, “economically,” referring to progress in Egypt”s economic reforms.

She went on, saying, “I raised our concerns about the detentions of journalists, and we have had a discussion of those issues.”

Aboul Gheit then interrupted, asking to make a point. “When we touch on issues we considered sensisitve and internal, I listen,” he said. “But my response is always that … this government does not interfere in Egyptian legal procedures. There is no mixing between politics and due process.”

In 2005, Rice made Egypt a focus of what the Bush administration said was a policy priority of seeking greater democracy in the Middle East. But when Egypt resisted the pressure, the U.S. backed off public criticisms of its ally — and Egyptian reform activists accused Washington of putting calls for democracy on the shelf in order to ensure Cairo”s backing on a variety of issues, including the Mideast peace process and Iraq.

U.S. officials insist they have always kept the pressure on privately, and public criticism from the White House and Congress has increased in recent months.

Nour, who ran against Mubarak in the country”s first openly contested presidential elections in 2005 and came in a distant second, is serving a five-year jail sentence over allegations that he forged papers to set up his political party — a charge he and his supporters say was fabricated to eliminate him as a rival.

The government has also targeted critics in the press. One editor of an independent newspaper has been put on trial for questioning the health of the 79-year-old president. Last month, an Egyptian court sentenced the editors of four outspoken tabloids to a year in prison for defaming Mubarak and his ruling party after they criticized senior officials in the government.

Authorities have also imprisoned hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members in recent months.

In September, the White House voiced displeasure with the media crackdown and the closure of a human rights group.

The Egyptian government also blasted as “unacceptable” legislation proposed earlier this year by the House of Representatives that would withhold $200 million in military aid until Cairo takes steps to curb police abuses, reform its judicial system and stop arms smuggling into the neighboring Gaza Strip.

Egypt receives $1.3 billion in military aid annually, along with large civilian aid, the second largest recipient of American aid in the world after Israel.

AP correspondent Matthew Lee contributed to this report.