CAIRO -- Egypt sharply rejected American criticism yesterday over plans to change the constitution, reflecting the tensions between the two allies over demands for democracy in the nation.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's comments before a visit in Cairo were a rare US public criticism of Egypt after months of near silence from Washington over reform. Rice made her comments amid an outcry among Egypt's opposition groups and rights groups over the planned constitutional amendments, which they say are a setback to democracy.
President Hosni Mubarak defended the amendments in a nationally televised speech yesterday and said his government would not bend to outside "pressure, dictation, or prerequisites."
Egyptian reformists have accused the United States of abandoning its calls for democracy in Egypt, where Mubarak has tightly held power for a quarter-century. In 2005, the Bush administration said Egypt was the cornerstone of its new priority of spreading reform in the region. During a trip to Egypt that year, Rice was outspoken in pressing for change.
Since then, public US pressure on Mubarak has sharply decreased, though US officials insist they have kept up their calls for reform behind the scenes. Earlier this year, Rice praised Egypt as an important ally during a similar visit to the country with little mention of reform.
Egyptian democracy advocates say the United States has decided it is more important to keep Egypt's support in a range of Mideast crises, including the war in Iraq, than to push its ally for change. They also believe Washington was worried that greater democracy in Egypt could bring greater power for the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, which made a surprisingly strong showing in parliamentary elections in late 2005.
Mubarak's ruling party lawmakers passed the 34 amendments to the constitution in parliament earlier this week, and the president hastily scheduled a referendum for tomorrow to give them final approval.
The opposition, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, has urged Egyptians to boycott the referendum and has threatened to hold protests on the day of the voting, despite a warning from the Interior Ministry that it would not allow demonstrations.