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Rice Cancels Egypt Trip as Rift Grows Over Reform

The decision comes after Cairo's jailing of an opposition leader and amid U.S. concerns that the nation is resisting a call for democracy.

February 26, 2005|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled an official visit to Cairo on Friday amid growing tensions between the United States and Egypt over what the Bush administration views as Egypt's resistance to democratic reform.

Richard Boucher, the chief State Department spokesman, said Rice would talk to Egyptian and other Arab diplomats at a meeting on Palestinian reform in London next week and, rather than continuing on to Egypt, would "visit the region, I think ... at a fairly early date."

But some lawmakers, foreign diplomats and other observers said they believed that the change in plans was prompted by friction over reform-related issues, including Egypt's January jailing of opposition leader Ayman Nour. Rice said two weeks ago that she was "very concerned" about the imprisonment of the ailing Nour, who began a hunger strike Tuesday.

"I'm glad Secretary Rice has reconsidered her trip," said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), a member of the House International Relations Committee. "I hope it will send a message to President [Hosni] Mubarak that the days when we will ignore the suppression of democracy are over."

A senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Rice had recently discussed reform and other issues with the Egyptians and wanted to give them time to make progress before a visit.

The administration has been pressing Mubarak's government to accelerate reform for several years, and President Bush prodded Cairo during his State of the Union speech in January. Administration officials believe that Cairo has resisted demands for change.

American and Egyptian officials clashed recently over Egypt's plans to hold a meeting of the G-8 leading industrialized nations and the Arab League to advance reform.

U.S. officials told the Egyptians that they believed the agenda did not have enough substance, foreign diplomats said. Last weekend, Egypt canceled the meeting, saying it would be held at a later date. The cancellation followed the criticism from Rice over Nour's arrest.

Cairo accused Nour of forging nearly all of the signatures collected to form the opposition party he heads. His supporters dismiss the case as a pretext to arrest him.

There has been debate within the State Department over whether, in light of the Nour arrest, Rice should go to the G-8/Arab League meeting, one U.S. official said.

Egypt, one of the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid, has also been pressured by members of Congress. When Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit visited Washington this month, he was told by Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), chairman of the House International Relations Committee, and Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo), the ranking Democrat, that Egypt was not moving fast enough on reform.

"To say they were frank is an understatement," a House leadership aide said.

Schiff last week introduced a resolution deploring Nour's arrest and calling on Rice to reconsider attending the Cairo conference.

Told of Rice's postponement of her upcoming visit, Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said: "Good. That's putting her money where her mouth is, and I'm sure that will make an impression on the Egyptians."

Egyptian officials could not be reached Friday for comment.

In an interview this week, Egypt's ambassador to the U.S., Nabil Fahmy, said he believed that the U.S.-Egyptian relationship would remain strong. But he said he was concerned that the administration's criticism of Egypt was hurting Americans' view of his country, as well as Egyptians' view of the U.S. government.

"In Egypt, the effect has not been useful. People don't like interference by anybody," he said.

Amr Hamzawy, an Egyptian political scientist now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said that although the Nour case had been the focus of international attention, interest in reform had been spreading within Egypt and elsewhere in the region. He cited small but growing Egyptian demonstrations, Palestinians' recent election of a president and Lebanese protests against Syrian influence.

Times staff writer Sonni Efron in Washington contributed to this report.

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