Rice warns Mubarak world will watch elections in Egypt

Rice warns Mubarak world will watch elections in Egypt

Rice warns Mubarak world will watch elections in Egypt
Debate rages in Washington over amount of pressure should be exerted on Egypt.
By Peter Mackler – SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delivered a strong message for more regional reforms after talks with Egyptian leaders on Monday and warned them that the world was expecting free and fair elections in September.

"I discussed preparations for the elections with the president," Rice said during a joint press conference with Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit, in reference to presidential elections scheduled for September.

"It is going to be essential that these elections be free and fair, that there be an opportunity for opposition to have access to media, that there is a sense of competitiveness in the elections," she said.

"I think our Egyptian friends understand that and I believe will take their responsibility seriously because people will watch what happens in Egypt," she warned.

Abul Gheit interrupted the top US diplomat to assure her that the elections would meet her demands, despite allegations by the opposition that legal restrictions on candidates effectively barred any serious challenge to Mubarak’s party.

"Who would object to fair and transparent elections? Everybody wants fair and transparent elections, and it will be so, I assure you," Abul Gheit said.

The United States is seen as the driving force behind an unprecedented push for reform in Egypt and Rice’s visit comes amid growing internal tensions over planned presidential and parliamentary elections.

Rice had abruptly cancelled a trip to Egypt scheduled for March in what officials admitted was a gesture of displeasure at the authorities’ jailing of Ayman Nur, leader of the opposition Ghad party.

Nur, who was freed a few days later and has since announced his intention to run in the next presidential race, is expected to meet Rice in Cairo later on Monday.

The United States applauded in February when Mubarak proposed a constitutional amendment that will allow for the first multi-candidate elections in decades.

But the Egyptian opposition has charged that the change was cosmetic, with too many strings attached, making it impossible for any opposition force to mount a serious electoral challenge.

Rice was also expected to reiterate Washington’s insistence that the September presidential elections and the November parliamentary polls be monitored by international observers.

A debate has been raging in Washington over the amount of pressure that should be exerted on Egypt, the most populous Arab country and the second top recipient of US economic and military aid in the world.

Egypt has a peace treaty with the Jewish state and plays a strategic mediating role between Israel and the Palestinians, currently engaged in talks over the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Rice praised Egypt’s leading role in the region but issued another stark warning to Syria.

"Our concerns are with Syria’s behaviour. We nee need a Syria that takes seriously the changes that are taking place in the region," she said.

An editorial in the state-owned Al-Akhbar daily on Monday warned Rice against any interference in internal Egyptian affairs, but the US push for reforms in the region was also far from unanimously embraced by the opposition.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition movement in Egypt, dismissed Rice’s visit.

"We reject US pressure on Egypt when it is for the benefit of the United States and the Zionists," said Mohammed Habib, a senior official from the Islamist movement.

"We know that the US administration is not a benevolent organisation or a charity. Its interests and agenda are not those of the Egyptian people," he added.

The Kefaya (Enough) movement, which has spearheaded an unprecedented string of demonstrations openly criticising Mubarak’s regime, said it turned down an invitation to meet Rice.

Kefaya has been the most visible sign of change in Egypt in recent months and the new wind of discontent blowing across the country has also revealed cracks in Mubarak’s ruling party.

According to newspaper reports, the young guard led by the president’s son Gamal is becoming increasingly critical of some members of Mubarak’s direct entourage, charging that their resistance to change is fanning popular anger and risks bringing the regime down.

Rice, who met with Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian leaders since kicking off her whirlwind regional tour on Saturday, is due to fly to Saudi Arabia later on Monday before attending a conference on Iraq the next day in Brussels.