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Rice Calls Egyptian Referendum "Disappointing"

Condoleezza Rice said she was disappointed by Egypt's decision to hold a referendum on constitutional amendments.


March 23, 2007

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Friday she was disappointed by Egypt's decision to hold a referendum on constitutional amendments and would raise her concerns in a visit to Egypt this weekend.

"This is a really disappointing outcome and we will talk about it and hopefully it will turn out better than expected but right now I am concerned that it won't," Rice said before leaving on a trip to Egypt, Israel, the West Bank and Jordan.

"I am really concerned about it. The Egyptians set certain expectations themselves about what this referendum would achieve and the hope that it would be a process that gave a voice to all Egyptians. There is some danger that that hope will not be met," she told a small group of reporters.

Monday's referendum has been billed by Egypt's government as reforms but is seen by opponents as an attempt to entrench the ruling party's grip on power.

The amendments include an anti-terrorism clause that appears to enshrine sweeping police powers of arrest and surveillance in the constitution. Opposition groups, including the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, plan to boycott the ballot.

London-based Amnesty International has called the amendments "the greatest erosion of human rights" since emergency laws were put in place in 1981 after the killing of President Anwar Sadat.

Rice said the "abbreviated" timetable for the referendum was a problem and she would raise this during meetings with Egyptian officials in Aswan, her first stop on a four-day visit to the region.

However, Rice's main focus in Aswan will be a meeting on the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process with the foreign ministers of the so-called Arab quartet -- Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates -- and with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The United States is a close ally of Egypt and wants its help to advance Middle East peace and quell violence in Iraq.

Despite this closeness, Washington has criticized Cairo several times in recent months over its human rights record and crackdown on political dissent. Egypt is the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid after Israel and Iraq, getting nearly $2 billion a year.

"As the Middle East moves towards greater openness and greater pluralism and democratization, Egypt ought to be in the lead of that. It's disappointing that this has not happened," said Rice.

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