Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pledged to a group of democracy activists on Wednesday that the United States will continue applying pressure on Egypt 's government to meet its promises of reform.
"One good thing about having the president stand for election and ask for the consent of the governed is that there is a program," Rice told a group of dissidents, editors and professors.
The session followed a breakfast with President Hosni Mubarak, who has pledged a variety of reforms that have yet to come to pass. Rice, who left Egypt later for Saudi Arabia , did not give any details of what she and Mubarak discussed.
Several of the activists told Rice that Mubarak is setting up a false choice between his autocratic rule and the leader of Egypt 's Islamic political movement, the Muslim Brotherhood.
The activists did not agree, however, on what how Rice should react to the Brotherhood, which is banned in Egypt . Rice has refused to meet with and Muslim Brotherhood members and they were not represented at Wednesday's meeting.
"Eliminating the Muslim Brotherhood is totally non-democratic," said Tarek Heggy, a writer and former petroleum executive. "The issue is how can we compete with them."
Rice made a point of telling the group that she found at least one of the cartoon images of the Prophet Muhammad that have inflamed the Muslim world to be "offensive personally." But she said the violent reaction to publication of the cartoons was "wrong and in some cases manufactured."
Her meeting with the dissident group came a day after a sometimes heated press conference with her Egyptian counterpart that illustrated the Bush administration's difficulties in promoting political freedom in the Middle East .
Rice is on her first trip to the region since the surprise victory of the militant group Hamas in Palestinian elections last month. The United States supported those elections and Rice has said she has no regrets about the results, even though it complicates the future of international aid to the Palestinians and peace with Israel .
At Tuesday's press conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Rice was asked whether the United States intended to impose a "democracy of torture" and human rights abuses. That, the reporter suggested, is what the United States has wrought in Iraq .
Others wanted to know why the United States is focused only on Iran's nuclear ambitions instead of on the nuclear weapons held by Israel, and whether the Bush administration might bomb Iran.
"Our aspiration is not that people will have an American-style democracy. American-style democracy is for Americans," Rice said. "But that there will be a democracy that is for Egypt or for Iraq or for any other people on this Earth, because democracy is the only form of government in which human beings truly get to express themselves."
Egypt has been a focus of U.S. efforts to bring greater democratic reform to the Middle East . But after last year's presidential elections which returned Mubarak to power with a huge if questionable margin, and violence-tarnished parliamentary voting, the U.S. issued critical assessments.
That was compounded by the imprisonment of Ayman Nour, an opposition leader who came in second to Mubarak in the presidential vote.
"There have been disappointments and setbacks" as well as positive movement, Rice said at Tuesday's press conference. "We've talked candidly about this."
Rice and Aboul Gheit interrupted one another, politely at first, but later with an edge. When Rice called Nour's case a setback for democracy, Aboul Gheit's face tightened.
"Due process has been applied," Aboul Gheit said coolly, referring to Nour's recent appeal of a stiff prison term on what the Bush administration has suggested are flimsy charges.
Also Tuesday, Aboul Gheit said it is premature to cut off international aid for a Palestinian government even if Hamas is at its helm, dashing the Bush administration's hopes for an immediate, unified front against the militant Islamic group.
"We should give Hamas time," Aboul Gheit said. "I'm sure that Hamas will develop, will evolve. We should not prejudge the issue , reports the AP.
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