Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday the health of the U.S. relationship with Egypt depends on that country making further progress toward democracy. She spoke at a congressional hearing marked by sharp criticism of the government of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Secretary of State Rice says she thinks there has been progress overall toward a more democratic society in Egypt and that U.S. aid to that country should continue.
However she says the country's last round of elections in December was extremely disappointing, as was the jailing of opposition politician Ayman Nour, who challenged President Mubarak in his run for re-election last year.
Rice spoke at a House Appropriations Committee hearing in response to a warning by a key Democrat that Congressional patience over Egypt, and support for the nearly $2-billion annual aid program for that country, is wearing thin.
Veteran Democrat David Obey told the secretary he had long been sympathetic to Egypt and had joined in efforts to prevent an aid cut last year. But he said he would have no reluctance to support an aid cut this year because of what he termed the ridiculous and outrageous jailing of Egyptian opposition figure Ayman Nour on what he said were trumped-up forgery charges.
"I find that absolutely intolerable," said David Obey. "And I am certainly not willing to take the action that I took last year in trying to mitigate the worst effects that could have come from the Congress taking another route. And in fact this year I expect to be in the forefront of efforts to cut off every last dime for aid to Egypt unless they recognize that they owe it to themselves and to us not to so publicly and gratuitously embarrass us and the democratic cause we stand for."
Ayman Nour, who ran against Mr. Mubarak in the country's first multi-candidate presidential election last September, was sentenced to five years in prison at the end of last year for allegedly forging signatures on documents that qualified his party for the election.
Responding to Congressman Obey's comments, Secretary Rice said the Bush administration initially viewed the presidential election as a step forward but that the optimism has been tempered by the violence-marred parliamentary elections in December and the jailing of Ayman Nour.
"We've made absolutely clear to the Egyptians that we find this counter to not only to their own interests but counter to the interests of the U.S.-Egyptian relationship," said Condoleezza Rice. "We do believe that the assistance request is still appropriate, given the fact that it is a large relationship with a number of elements. But I can assure you Congressman that we have made it very clear the Egyptian government that the nature of this relationship is in large part, or the health of this relationship, is in large part due to what further progress they can make on the democracy front."
Rice said there has been some progress, and that multiparty elections have gotten what she termed a different kind of conversation started in Egypt. She told Congressmen Obey the Egyptians are friends of the United States who may be in constant need of a very strong message, one which she insisted the Bush administration is sending.