US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was met with strong criticism from Egypt's foreign minister Saturday, after she raised concerns over a planned constitutional referendum she suggested will be less than democratic. Rice is holding talks in southern Egypt with Arab foreign ministers over the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. She hopes to rally wider Arab support for the stalled effort to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians and to encourage flexibility from Arab nations that have not made peace with Israel. But her visit coincides with a political storm in Egypt over the changes to the constitution, which the Egyptian opposition has denounced as a blow to democracy in this close US ally.
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The government has hastily scheduled a referendum on the amendments for Monday, which the opposition has said it will boycott.
"Even if Egypt and the United States have a friendly, strategic relationship, Egypt can't accept interference in its affairs from any of its friends," Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said before Rice arrived.
"It is unimaginable that someone would speak about and judge an Egyptian internal political process before it even starts," Gheit said.
In a speech encouraging Egyptians to vote for the amendments in a referendum on Monday, President Hosni Mubarak added that he would not bend to outside "pressure, dictation or prerequisites."
Rice and Gheit were meeting Saturday as part of a gathering of four key US allies in the Arab world. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates are part of what Rice calls a moderate bloc, although all have dynastic or authoritarian governments.
Besides foreign ministers from those nations, Rice was meeting separately with intelligence and security chiefs. It is her second such strategy session to blunt the effectiveness of Hamas, who now shares power in the Palestinian Authority.
Before she left Washington, Rice said she hopes Arab states will soon recommit to an old offer for a broad peace with Israel and be willing to negotiate with the Jewish state.
Rice's trip is timed in part so that she can see Arab leaders and diplomats ahead of an Arab summit later this month. That meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, is expected to revive a mothballed 2002 Arab proposal for blanket peace with Israel.
The top US diplomat will shuttle between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Jerusalem and the West Bank, but she tried to lower expectations for that part of her mission.