|Egypt's leading opposition candidate for president, Ayman Nour, shouts from inside his court cell as he is greeted by supporters|
U.S. officials have been paying close attention to Mr. Nour's legal plight, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice postponing a visit to Cairo in February after the Egyptian opposition figure was jailed for several weeks while the forgery case was under investigation.
When Ms. Rice did visit Cairo last week, she met with democracy activists including Mr. Nour, who is pursuing his presidential campaign despite the trial.
At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said U.S. officials are closely watching the trial of Mr. Nour, which opened in Cairo Tuesday with the defendant denying charges he forged petitions submitted to legalize his Tomorrow Party last year.
Mr. McCormack did not address the substance of the charges against Mr. Nour, but said the United States wants to see a fair trial and an open political process in Egypt:
"We expect, and we would hope that any proceedings take place in a transparent, impartial and fair manner," he said. "And I would reiterate our view that the Egyptian people should be free to speak, assemble and choose their leaders in an atmosphere free from intimidation."
Asked about the trial's implications for the September election, billed as Egypt's first-ever multi-candidate presidential vote, Mr. McCormack said it is not only election day that matters, but the run-up to it, including opposition access to the media and other elements of a democratic process.
The Bush administration, as part of its broader advocacy of reform in the region, has been prodding President Mubarak, a longtime U.S. ally, to open up Egyptian political life after decades of what has essentially been one-party rule.
Egyptian opposition leaders regard the rules governing who can run in the September election as impossibly restrictive, and many say the 77-year-old Egyptian leader, the president since 1981, should not seek another term in office.
Earlier this week, the State Department rejected suggestions it was being hypocritical for criticizing Iran's recent presidential election while speaking approvingly of election plans in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, even though Saudi women will be barred from upcoming municipal voting.
Spokesman McCormack said the difference is that what is occurring in Egypt and Saudi Arabia represents forward progress in democratic reform, while in Iran he said the situation is headed in the wrong direction after relatively freer elections and political discourse in 1997.