Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Egypt liberals to Rice: Mubarak stifles secularists

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptian liberals told visiting Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Wednesday their government was helping the Islamist opposition by stifling other forms of political activity.

Rice encouraged the liberals to organize themselves and speak to the government with "a concerted voice."

She said the United States would keep pressing the Egyptian government to carry out the political reform program which President Hosni Mubarak promised during last year's elections.

Rice met seven selected members of Egyptian civil society, all of them English-speaking and most of them associated with the small secular liberal wing in Egyptian politics.

They included a close associate of imprisoned opposition leader Ayman Nour, the Egyptian head of the American Chamber of Commerce, business people, intellectuals and academics.

But none of them spoke on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement which emerged in last year's parliamentary elections as the largest opposition force in the country. The Brotherhood has 88 members in the 454-seat parliament.

As in the Palestinian elections last month, the electoral success of the Islamists poses a dilemma for the United States, which says it favors democracy in the Arab world.

Tareq Heggy, a liberal oil executive and writer, told Rice the United States should give the Egyptian government advice on how to "pull the carpet from under the Muslim Brothers."

He said that trying to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood would be completely undemocratic. "So the issue is how we (the liberals) can compete with them," he added.

Corporate lawyer Taher Helmy said: "They (the Muslim Brotherhood) are much stronger than what you see. The reason for that is that there is a political vacuum."

The liberals, including Ayman Nour's Ghad (Tomorrow) party, fared poorly in elections in November and December.


Hala Mustafa, an academic who is in Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP), complained to Rice that Egypt's government-owned media had waged a smear campaign against advocates of reform.

Holding up an article attacking liberals in the state-owned weekly Rose el-Youssef, she said: "If you are really serious (about pressing for reform), you should criticize this."

Saadeddin Ibrahim, a sociologist who has both U.S. and Egyptian citizenship, told Rice the United States must link its financial aid to Egypt, close to $2 billion a year, to progress on political reform. "Condition it," he said.

He said Mubarak's strategy was to confine the political competition in Egypt to himself and the Islamists. "(He knows) that the West will always side with him," he added.

"She (Rice) urged civil society groups to coordinate, to be outspoken and to keep the Americans informed," Ibrahim told Reuters after the meeting.

At a joint news conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit on Tuesday, Rice said the political events of the last year in Egypt included "setbacks and disappointments."

The presidential elections, in which Mubarak won 89 percent of the vote, and the parliamentary elections were seriously marred by government interference and violence by the security forces, monitoring groups said.

Rice had talks with Mubarak over breakfast on Wednesday and then left for the Saudi capital Riyadh. She will also visit the United Arab Emirates on her Middle East trip.


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