Rice speech promotes democracy in Egypt
U.S. top diplomat calls for Syrian democratic reform
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CAIRO, Egypt (CNN) -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice challenged Egyptians on Monday to "lead and define" a democratic future in the Middle East.
Rice, delivering a speech at The American University in Cairo, also had strong words for Syria's government, calling on Damascus to "join the progress that is going on all around it."
"We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people," Rice said. "As President Bush said in his second inaugural address: 'America will not impose our style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, to attain their own freedom, make their own way.' "
"The people of Egypt should be at the forefront of this great journey, just as you have led this region through the great journeys of the past," she said.
Egyptian voters last month, in a nationwide referendum, approved a constitutional amendment to allow in September -- for the first time -- multiple candidates in a presidential election.
On Syria, Rice said the government should "make a strategic choice" to follow the path of its neighbors.
"One hundred and seventy-nine Syrian academics and human rights activists are calling upon their government to 'let the Damascus spring flower, and let its flowers bloom,' " she said. "Syria's leaders should embrace this call, and learn to trust their people."
Earlier in the day, after a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Rice said Egypt should begin taking steps toward democracy, starting with its September elections.
The United States is looking to Egypt, she said, to take a "major role in leading reform in this region."
"We have made very clear that we believe that Egypt is such an important county," Rice said at a news conference in the city of Sharm el-Sheikh with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit. "Now that President Mubarak has opened this door and taken this important first step ... it is going to be essential that those elections be free and fair, that there be an opportunity for the opposition to have access to media, that there is a sense of competitiveness in the elections."
"I think our Egyptian friends understand that, and I believe will take their responsibility seriously," she said. "People will watch what happens in Egypt, because this is an important country in the region, a region that is changing very much."
Gheit addressed concerns about the upcoming elections.
"Who would object to fair, transparent elections?" said Gheit. "Everyone wants free and transparent elections -- and it will be so, I assure you."
Rice said she and Mubarak also discussed issues including the Israeli pullout from Gaza, the situation in Iraq and concern about how to encourage stability within Iraq as well as at its borders with Iran and Syria.
Asked about America's credibility in Egypt and how some question whether the country has the "moral authority" to push democracy in light of recent events such as the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, Rice said America "is speaking to a set of core values and principles that the United States holds, but that we believe are universal principles ... the human dignity that comes from democratic values."
Rice pointed out that the United States was once a slave-trading nation, and all eligible citizens were not guaranteed the right to vote until the Civil Rights Act of 1965. "Americans understand that democracy is a process, and it's difficult, but we're going to continue to speak up for these principles, and it's not a matter of judgment."
But democracy, she said, "does not guarantee people will not do bad things. Sometimes people will do bad things. What democracy guarantees is that they will be openly and transparently debated" and wrongdoers are held accountable.
In her speech, delivered to 1,000 invited attendees, Rice said she visited Cairo "not to talk about the past, but to look to the future, to a future that Egyptians can lead and define."
"Throughout the Middle East, the fear of free choices can no longer justify the denial of liberty," she said. "It is time to abandon the excuses that are made to avoid the hard work of democracy."
After the speech, Rice was to meet with civil society activists and opposition leader Ayman Nur, leader of the Ghad party. In March, Rice canceled a trip to Egypt after Nur was jailed.
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