Speaking at a news conference after talks with President Hosni Mubarak on Monday, Rice added that she was confident Cairo understood its responsibilities.

"People will watch what happens," she said.

She described Mubarak's decision to allow contested elections as an important first step and said Egypt and the US had a strong strategic relationship.

"Egypt has often led the way in this area on so many issues and we look to the Egyptians and the Egyptian people to take a major role in leading reform," she added.

Mubarak, 77 and in power since 1981, is expected to seek a fifth six-year term in September under a new system of direct elections with more than one candidate.

Uninspired

But after 50 years without competitive presidential elections and with strict limits on independents, opposition candidates say Mubarak is unlikely to face a serious demand for reform from Rice.

Rice greets Ayman Nour (L),
head of the al-Ghad party

The head of the Egyptian opposition al-Ghad party, Ayman Nour, said Rice's visit bore no direct relation to specific constitutional and political demands made by reformers.

 

"We do not expect anything from Rice. I do not believe the US is serious on its pursuit for reform and democracy in the Arab world in this present stage.

 

"As for responsiveness, I believe the Egyptian regime is very smart in manoeuvring and dodging every domestic or international demand."

 

And along with the Muslim Brotherhood opposition group, Nour added that state media continue to give all headline coverage to Mubarak.

 

Official reaction

Nevertheless, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Ali Aboul Gheit responded to Rice's comments, saying Cairo wanted free and fair elections, too.

"Who would object to fair, transparent elections? Everybody wants a fair, transparent election, and this I believe, I assure you."

"Who would object to fair, transparent elections? Everybody wants a fair, transparent election, and this I believe, I assure you"

Ahmad Ali Aboul Gheit,
Egyptian foreign minister

But he added that in trying to reform the Middle East, it was crucial the US try to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"There is anger in the region, and we have to control that anger and we have to work on their anger to build Arab-American long-term relations," he said.

After the talks in Sharm al-Shaikh, which also touched on Iraq, Syria and Egypt's role in Gaza, Rice flew to Cairo to make a policy speech at the American University in Cairo.

She is expected to explain the shift in US policy away from stability in the Middle East to democracy in the region. The shift has gained momentum after some of the explanations for the decision to invade Iraq turned out to be baseless.

She will also meet Egyptian reformers who are expected to ask her to keep up the pressure on Mubarak for more political freedom.

Some main opposition groups, which also want reform but say Washington should stay out of Egypt's business, have not been invited to meet her.