Rice says the world will be watching Egypt elections

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Monday the world will be watching elections planned for Egypt this fall and her Egyptian counterpart promised the voting will be free and fair.

Rice, speaking at a news conference, said she has discussed preparations for the elections with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who surprised Washington and other Arab nations this spring when he announced his country would hold its first ever multiparty elections.

Limits on who can run and scattered violence and thuggery during a preparatory referendum raised international doubt that Mubarak is serious about reform.

But the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has mostly praised Mubarak, while thrashing Iran's Islamic leadership for placing somewhat similar limitations on the slate of candidates in elections this past weekend.

Rice said the Egyptian voting must include an opportunity for opposition candidates to air their messages and said it is important "that there be a sense of competition."

"I believe our Egyptian friends understand that and that they will take their responsibility seriously because people will watch what happens in Egypt." Rice said.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit interjected to assure Rice the vote would be open.

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

Rice takes her case for democracy directly to the Arab public later Monday with a speech at the American University in Cairo. It is a delicate message in a region where anti-American sentiment is high even among historically strong allies such as Egypt.

Rice said the U.S. is not passing judgment on other countries but is offering the world an example of open government where dissent and controversy are commonplace.

"What people on earth don't want to be able to say what they think and worship as they please," Rice said.

Gheit said he told Rice the allegations of mistreatment of the Quran and abuse of prisoners by American troops at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq resonated strongly in the Arab world.

"I told you also that there is anger in the region and that we have to work on this anger," Gheit said at the news conference, looking directly at Rice.

Earlier, Rice asked Arab countries to help thwart violence as Israelis undergo a complex withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, and argued that the whole Middle East will benefit from greater political freedom.

"I think they will work to coordinate and make this a success," Rice said of the Israelis and Palestinians. She spoke in the Jordanian capital of Amman after two days of intensive discussions with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

"But we all have to say to any who might reject this and might try to disrupt the withdrawal - and I mean by this terrorist organizations - that it is simply unacceptable to the international community and particularly in the Arab world that the Palestinians would be denied this chance."

Rice is midway through a Middle East tour marked by two main themes: the importance of success in the on-again, off-again Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the more nebulous notion that democracy is a realistic antidote for hopelessness and hatred.

Bush made a case for democracy in the Middle East in two major speeches this year, and singled out Egypt and Saudi Arabia as nations that could be an example of change. Rice visits both allies Monday for the first time since she became secretary of state.

"There's no plan here," Rice said in Amman. "It is just that the president believes very strongly that the values of democracy and liberty and freedom and the desire to live in democracy and liberty and freedom are indeed universal."

ANNE GEARAN, AP Diplomatic Writer

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