Playing Nice in the Pursuit of Peace
ASWAN, Egypt, March 25--Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this morning held a news conference with her Egyptian counterpart, Ahmed Aboul Gheit. This is usually an entertaining event, because sparks often fly between the two of them.
Gheit is a proud man. Rice humiliated him early in her tenure by publicly raising the jailing of Egyptian democracy activist Ayman Nour--and then canceling a planned visit to Cairo in protest. He appears never to have forgotten it, and looks for ways to get in a jab or two when the two appear before reporters.
When Rice had traveled to Egypt last October, for instance, she was asked by a reporter whether she had raised the case of Nour, who still languished in prison.
"I've spoken about Ayman Nour at each time that I meet with my Egyptian counterparts," Rice said.
"You didn't raise it today," Aboul Gheit gleefully interjected.
Today, both Rice and Aboul Gheit tried hard to stay on good behavior, though there was clearly tension over a vote Monday in Egypt on constitutional amendments that human rights groups say would place restrictions on opposition parties, suspend judicial supervision of elections and enshrine sweeping police powers. Before leaving for Egypt, Rice told reporters in Washington that the referendum was "really disappointing," questioning whether it would harm democracy and why the government had given voters only one week to consider the proposed changes.
Aboul Gheit denounced her comments Saturday, saying "Egypt can't accept interference in its affairs from any of its friends."
With that backdrop, reporters were hoping for fireworks. They tried hard to prod Rice and Aboul Gheit with repeated questions about the referendum, but Rice in particular seemed eager to play down any dispute.
Rice praised Egypt's central role in peacemaking. While she noted she had discussed the referendum during a 90-minute conversation with Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, her voice became thin and tense when a reporter asked whether the conversation had allayed the concerns she expressed before she left. Without directly answering the questions, Rice said, "We have had a discussion. I have made my concerns known as well as my hopes for continued reform here in Egypt." She added that the process of reform was going to have "its ups and downs."
Aboul Gheit was unapologetic about the constitutional amendments. "There is a direct threat the Egyptian state and Egyptian society through terrorism," he said. "I doubt you know the details; we know the details."
He also brushed off complaints about the short period between the unveiling of the amendments and the referendum, which has led opposition parties to vow to boycott it. "This is an issue of timing" he said, related to Egyptian holidays this spring. "There are many holidays in Egypt where the entire country really disappears," he said, so the date was chosen "so people may enjoy their life and their vacation."
At one point, Aboul Gheit became almost poetic as he defended Egypt's version of democracy. Turning to Rice, he said, "If you look through the window of your suite here you will see groups of granite rocks, a whole mountain of granite. That is the Egyptian spirit. The Egyptian spirit is as solid as granite. It is capable going through the journey with solid steps forward in order to achieve that objective."
"I believe that very strongly," Rice replied.
"Thank you," Aboul Gheit said with a triumphal smile.
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