She once called Egypt and Saudi Arabia “our moderate Arab friends,” but Secretary of State Rice was somewhat less friendly than usual on her latest visit to the two Middle East autocracies.
“Throughout the Middle East, the fear of free choices can no longer justify the denial of liberty,” Rice told an invitation-only audience of government officials, academics and diplomats at the American University in Cairo. “It is time to abandon the excuses that are made to avoid the hard work of democracy.”
She later traveled to Saudi Arabia, where “many people pay an unfair price for exercising their basic rights,” she said.
In her remarks on Saudi Arabia, Rice noted that three people who petitioned the monarchy to adopt a constitutional system had been jailed on charges of trying to encourage dissent. “That should not be a crime in any country,” Rice said.
In the speech, the secretary said governments must protect “certain basic rights for all their citizens,” including “the right to speak freely, the right to associate, the right to worship as you wish, the freedom to educate your children — boys and girls — and the freedom from the midnight knock of the secret police.”
She also made an impassioned plea for women’s rights in the Middle East. “Half a democracy is not a democracy,” she said.
After the address, Rice met for nearly an hour with Ayman Nour, the Egyptian opposition candidate whose campaign has been repeatedly harassed by the government, as well as seven other representatives of opposition parties and civil groups. There were no representatives from Kifaya, or Enough, the coalition of human rights, professional and legal organizations that began a drive last fall to unseat Mubarak.
In February, Rice canceled a planned visit to Egypt when the government did not immediately release Nour from jail on what U.S. officials said were trumped-up charges.
Of course I always believe the US should be taking a harder line with its repressive allies than it does. But I think the significance of her words will not be lost on the region’s rulers, or on those struggling for freedom against them. The important thing is that the message be sustained and consistent.
Finally Rice deserves credit for acknowledging something few American officials ever do:
The United States, she said, “has no cause for false pride and we have every reason for humility,” because of its history of slavery and racism.
And she paid a nice tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., “who she said was responsible for her having the position she holds now. He ‘always talked about making America true to ourselves,’ she said.”