SHARM EL SHEIKH, Egypt—Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak aimed veiled criticism at the United States Saturday, revealing a growing rift between traditional allies over the pace of democratic reform in Egypt and the Bush administration's handling of the nuclear crisis in Iran and the war in Iraq.
Mubarak told hundreds of analysts, academics and politicians at the annual World Economic Forum on the Middle East that nations should avoid double standards and "selectivity" when it comes to nuclear development, a reference to Washington's intense concern over Iran's nuclear ambitions while it keeps mum on the atomic arsenal Israel is believed to posses.
Mubarak, 78, also said he envisions a world that "steers away from unilateral actions," interpreted by participants as criticism of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which has stoked unrest throughout the region.
"The winds of change in the Middle East will not bear fruit in the absence of addressing its conflicts and tensions: the stalemate in the (Israeli-Palestinian) peace process, the situation in Iraq, the controversy surrounding Iran's nuclear program, the situation in Darfur, (and) the tension between Syria and Lebanon," Mubarak said.
Such criticism rarely comes from Egypt, traditionally the closest Arab ally of the United States and the recipient of nearly $2 billion a year in aid. But pressure from the Bush administration for democratic change, which the United States had hoped would have a domino effect in the region, has caused headaches for Mubarak at home.
Emboldened by the U.S. pressure on Egypt, opposition groups in Cairo have staged large pro-reform protests, printed searing criticisms of Mubarak's 25-year monopoly on power and published long lists of alleged human rights abuses by Egypt's vast security apparatus.
The U.S. embassy in Cairo had no immediate response to the president's remarks. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick is scheduled to speak later at the three-day conference in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el Sheikh.
Mubarak won praise from the United States last year for easing the ruling party's grip on power by holding the first contested presidential elections. But in recent months, opposition activists complain, the government reverted to its old ways, canceling municipal elections, brutally crushing street protests and hassling judges who call for more judicial independence.
Earlier this week, an Egyptian court rejected the appeal of Ayman Nour, a jailed opposition figure who placed a distant second in last year's presidential race. Nour, leader of the secular Ghad Party, is serving a 5-year sentence on forgery charges, which his supporters say were trumped up by the government.
The Bush administration this week condemned the mass arrests of protesters and Nour's jail sentence and urged Egypt to stay on the path to reform. After Mubarak's speech Saturday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit told reporters that change must move at a pace set at home and not imposed from abroad.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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