Rice's remarks were made to 700 invited government officials, academics and other guests at the American University in Cairo on Monday. In her speech she said the fear of free choices could no longer justify the denial of liberty.

The setting is notable, both because Egypt plans multi-party elections in the autumn and because the Bush administration has made no secret of its dissatisfaction with political progress and the treatment of opposition figures by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

"For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither," Rice said.

"Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people."

She noted that US President George Bush said the US would not try to impose an American style of government on the unwilling and that the goal of his administration was to help others find their own voice.

Rice criticism

"Throughout the Middle East the fear of freedom of choices can no longer justify the denial of liberty. It is time to abandon the excuses that are made to avoid the hard work of democracy," Rice said.

She took the governments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, both close US allies, to task for cracking down on dissent.

"For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people"

Condoleezza Rice,
US Secretary of State

In Saudi Arabia, she noted, three people are currently in jail for petitioning the government. "That should not be a crime in any country," she said.

She lauded Mubarak for calling for elections, but said she was concerned for the future of Egypt's reforms because of the violence that has faced peaceful supporters of democracy.

"President Mubarak has unlocked the door for change. Now, the Egyptian government must put its faith in its own people," she aid.

"The Egyptian government must fulfil the promise it has made to its people, and to the entire world, by giving its citizens the freedom to choose."

Scepticism

However, anti-government protesters, gathered at Cairo's highest court, did not universally welcome Rice's remarks.

"The American regime has to be boycotted as long as they are occupying Arab and Islamic lands," said activist Abdel Hamid Kandil.

Egypt has recently seen several
anti-Mubarak demonstrations

"We don't accept any Americans or Israelis visiting Egypt. The American regime does not have any seriousness in democracy. Today Condoleezza Rice was talking about free and fair elections. How this can be serious if there are no candidates and no elections in the first place?"

Among those who attended Rice's speech, Sanaa Eid, a former banker, said the secretary's talk left her hoping for more answers.

"The Americans want to impose their control on the country not only for the sake of democracy," she said.

"It is our right, and we are very, very eager to be like them in democracy, but I don't feel that this brings results."

US strategic interest

Moheb Zaki, a senior adviser to a pro-US think-tank, said he wished that Rice's speech had been more forceful.

"People are claiming that the United States has no business interfering in Egypt's business," he said.

"The American regime does not have any seriousness in democracy. Today Condoleezza Rice was talking about free and fair elections. How this can be serious if there are no candidates and no elections in the first place?"

Abdel Hamid Kandil,
Egyptian activist

"Actually, the United States, it has a strategic interest here. Then it is their business, also, to see that democracy is implemented in every place in the world."

Injy Mohammed, an economics major at Cairo University, said she was happy to hear Rice reiterate that she is not trying to impose democracy.

"I liked most the part that democracy would never be imposed by America," she said. "This is the message she wants to deliver everywhere."

Rice also offered a brief checklist for democracy to both supporters and opponents of established governments.

Egyptian elections

"They must accept the rule of law. They must reject violence. They must respect the standards of free elections. And they must peacefully accept the results," she told her audience.

Rice also delivered a blunt slap to Palestinian resistance group Hamas, which the US labels a terrorist organisation but which is a growing political force across the Middle East.

Hosni Mubarak has ruled Egypt
unchallenged for 24 years

"For all citizens with grievances, democracy can be a path to lasting justice. But the democratic system cannot function if certain groups have one foot in the realm of politics and one foot in the camp of terror," Rice said.

Earlier on Monday at a news conference in Sharm al-Shaikh, Rice said the world will be watching the elections. Her Egyptian counterpart promised the voting will be free, fair and open.

"Who would object to fair and transparent elections?" Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said. "It will be so, I assure you."

Rice said she had discussed preparations for the elections with Mubarak, who surprised Washington and other Arab nations this spring when he announced his country would hold its first ever multi-party elections.

Violence and thuggery

Limits on who can run, and scattered violence and thuggery during a preparatory referendum, raised international doubts that Mubarak is serious about reform.

But the Bush administration has mostly praised Mubarak, while thrashing Iran's Islamic leadership for placing somewhat similar limitations on the slate of candidates in elections this past weekend.

Rice said the Egyptian voting must include an opportunity for opposition candidates to air their messages and said it was important that there was a sense of competition.

The US secretary of state is midway through a Middle East tour marked by two main themes: the importance of success in the on-again, off-again Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and the more nebulous notion that democracy is a realistic antidote for hopelessness and hatred.