CAIRO, Egypt - In a reflection of the Bush administration's new global priorities, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delivered a high-profile call for political reform in the Middle East yesterday and urged Egypt to lead the way.
In her speech, billed by aides as the main public event of her weeklong trip to the Middle East and Europe, Rice told an invitation-only audience of about 600 of the country's Westernized elite at the American University in Cairo that democracy was an inevitable part of the region's future, "a future that Egyptians can lead and can define."
"Liberty is the universal longing of every soul, and democracy is the ideal path for every nation," she declared.
Although the audience greeted Rice with polite applause as she walked into the auditorium, her 24-minute speech drew only silence despite its soaring rhetoric and sweeping nature.
Senior members of the administration have made the push for political liberalization a centerpiece of its Middle East policy during the early months of President Bush's second term.
But Rice's day in Cairo underscored the complexities of implementing the Bush vision for the region and reflected the inconsistencies in the administration's approach.
Egypt's role as one of the United States' most important Arab allies and a key participant in the Middle East peace process made it awkward for Rice to criticize the country's authoritarian leader, Hosni Mubarak. He has suppressed most meaningful political opposition and has ruled under martial law since he became president 24 years ago.
Earlier this year, Mubarak moved to make the country's one-party state more open, but his initiative to open the September presidential election to more than one candidate was too restrictive to generate much hope.
At an anti-government demonstration in May, protesters were assaulted by thugs as police stood by, and thousands were detained.
The crackdown came just after first lady Laura Bush had praised the election law as "a very bold step" during a brief visit to Cairo.
In her speech yesterday, Rice nudged the Egyptian leader by urging his government to "fulfill the promise it has made to its people, and to the entire world, by giving its citizens the freedom to choose."
"We are all concerned for the future of Egypt's reforms when peaceful supporters of democracy - men and women - are not free from violence," she added.
Rice disappointed many in the audience when she told a questioner after the speech that the United States would have no contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition force in the country. The organization has formally renounced violence as a tool for political change but is banned in Egypt under a law that prohibits religious-based parties.
"We haven't engaged the Muslim Brotherhood, and we won't," Rice said.
Some of those who attended Rice's speech complained that the stance effectively legitimized Mubarak's government.
Rice made her comments on the fourth day of a weeklong trip to the Middle East and Europe. She left Cairo later in the day for the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
Osama Ali, a businessman who was in the auditorium for Rice's speech, predicted that Egyptians would be pleased that Rice was pressuring the government for change.
"I think the audience would have liked her to be even stronger," he said.
But Amr Abou Alam, 36, a telecommunications expert, said he resented Rice coming to Cairo to talk about reforms in Egypt even though he agreed with her about the need for reform.
"It's like giving us a lesson in morals," he said. "I simply won't accept it."
Immediately after her speech, Rice met with a group of nine Egyptian opposition figures, including Ayman Nour, leader of the Ghad Party, whose arrest in February led Rice to cancel an earlier visit to Egypt in protest.
Nour called the meeting "very positive."
In contrast to her careful remarks about Mubarak, Rice has minced few words about other leaders in her travels as secretary of state.
In April she denounced President Alexander Lukashenko's government in Belarus as "the last true dictatorship in the center of Europe." She met with opposition figures on the fringes of a NATO meeting in neighboring Lithuania.
She was equally direct yesterday in her criticism of two U.S. adversaries in the Middle East, labeling Syria a police state and talking of "the organized cruelty of Iran's theocratic state."
She used milder language in taking aim at Saudi Arabia, another U.S. ally in the region, noting that "many people [there] still pay an unfair price for exercising their basic rights."
She raised the issue of three people who were imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for petitioning the government for change, stating, "That should not be a crime in any country." Though her words were carefully chosen, her criticism of Saudi Arabia was considered significant because such comments are rare from a senior U.S. official.
At a midnight news conference in Riyadh, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said little had come of Rice's mention of the three.
"They are in the hands of the courts, and the government cannot interfere in a court action," he said.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.