CAIRO, Egypt -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, touring the Middle East in an attempt to build support for U.S. goals and allies here, found herself on the defensive yesterday about the Bush administration's search for partnerships and its democratic reform efforts.
Meeting in Cairo with ministers of eight moderate Arab governments, Rice was questioned on whether her desire to work with them masked an American desire to line up allies against the growing power of Iran. She was challenged by the Egyptian foreign minister and a dubious local press on whether President Bush's campaign of democratic reform was anything more than meddling by a country that doesn't accept election results it doesn't like.
Bush dispatched Rice to the Middle East at a time when, in the wake of the Lebanon war, European and Arab countries among others are clamoring again for progress in the Arab-Israeli dispute. But as Rice arrived in Cairo on the second day of a weeklong trip, it was apparent that many in the region view the effort as a veiled attempt to build a new "coalition of the willing" to stand up to Iran, such as that employed in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Bush administration officials have faced tough questions in the region for some time. Still, the tone was another sign that the administration faces a stiffer challenge in trying to rebuild ties in the wake of a war in Lebanon that many here contend the U.S. government was unwilling to stop.
Rice, in an interview with Egyptian news media, insisted that "this is not a meeting or a coalition against anyone."
The Egyptian foreign minister made clear his government's view that while Egypt has been a key target of the American democratic reform effort, it is capable of advancing at its own speed by itself.
Ahmed Abul Gheit, Egypt's foreign minister, challenged Rice to stay in Egypt for a month to witness for herself the country's eagerness for development.
"Not everything is done in haste ... and not everything is done in one day," he said. "But we will move. ... We will be there."
Rice was asked at the evening news conference about widespread reports that the United States is secretly supporting the choice of Gamal Mubarak, the son of longtime President Hosni Mubarak, to succeed his father.
She insisted that the United States is not involved in the decision.
"It is absolutely going to be up to the people who is going to be the president of Egypt," she said.
Rice said the Bush administration's goal in funding nongovernmental programs for building democratic institutions is not intended "to interfere in choices Egyptians make, but to help civil society develop the capability to give Egyptians choices."
"The United States is going to stand for certain values," she said. "We always have and we always will - and it is not a matter of interference in Egypt's internal affairs. How Egypt conducts its internal affairs will, of course, be up to Egyptians."
Reporters questioned whether U.S. aid to nongovernmental organizations was really interference. She was also asked whether the United States does, indeed, favor democratic outcomes, considering that it has worked to halt aid to the Hamas-led Palestinian government that was elected early this year.
In response to another question, Rice made a slight change in the Bush administration's vocabulary. She said she preferred "the future Middle East," to the phrase "the new Middle East," which has become controversial by suggesting U.S.-engineered change.
Bringing back an important word from Bush's 2000 election campaign, she said the United States intends to be a "humble" nation in the way it pushes countries to try to change.
In Rice's visit to Cairo and her stop last night in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, it was clear that U.S. allies in the region have greater ambitions for a renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace effort than does the Bush administration.
U.S. officials have made clear that the most they hope for now is limited progress. Bush said last week that the United States does not intend to impose a settlement on the Palestinians and Israelis.
But Abul Gheit and Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal made clear that they want major steps to be taken swiftly to move the parties toward an eventual two-state solution.
"Ever since the problem arose of Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the region has been destabilized," Saud said. "Like a disease on the body, it calls for other diseases to attack that weakened body. And therefore, we think it's a core problem."
Paul Richter writes for the Los Angeles Times.