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Reading Them the Riyadh Act

From the July 4 / July 11, 2005 issue: Condoleezza Rice prods our dictatorial allies.

Jul 4, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 40 • By JONATHAN KARL
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When Madeleine Albright, as America's first female secretary of state, visited Saudi Arabia, she meekly said, "I hope that in our future discussions in New York [at the U.N.] and when we meet again, we can speak about the role of women in your societies and around the world." They never did get around to that discussion. Compare that with Rice's loud declaration in Cairo: "Half a democracy is not a democracy."

Rice's actions in the Middle East are, however, carefully calibrated to pressure allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia as hard as possible without undermining their important strategic relationships with the United States. That means pushing but not too hard. One of the most visible symbols of Saudi Arabia's abysmal record on women's rights is the law against women driving. I asked Rice about it in an interview following her Cairo speech and was surprised when she refused to criticize this blatantly discriminatory law. "I'm going to worry about women voting," she says. "I don't know about women driving."

Could it be that Secretary Rice won't even criticize a law that makes it illegal for women to drive? "It's just a line I have not wanted to cross," she says. "I think it is important that we do have some boundaries about what it is that we are trying to achieve. . . . I have not wanted to in any society go in and say women ought to be able to do this activity or that activity." The driving ban, she suggests, may or may not be a violation of women's rights in Saudi society. On the other hand, it could simply be a custom that is perfectly acceptable to Saudi women. The way you can tell, she argues, is by getting political rights for women.

"I am quite certain that when women are able to express their aspirations and their views in the political system, we will see what is really custom and what really does matter to Saudi women." Even with full political rights for Saudi women, Rice suggests, the law against women driving could remain. "The United States has to recognize even after democratic processes take place, places are not going to look like the United States in terms of social mores."

Rice tries to balance the tough talk about democracy with talk of humility in foreign policy. When I ask her why she isn't tougher on the Saudis, she says, "Let's be a little bit humble about what the United States had to go through to fully extend the democratic enterprise." She points out, as she often does, that it took nearly a century to end slavery, that women didn't get the right to vote until the early 20th century, and that blacks didn't get full voting rights until 1965.

Rice has shown less timidity toward Egypt. In Cairo, she met with a small group of opposition figures, including Ayman Nour, who had been jailed on what the United States considered trumped-up charges. Rice strongly objected when Nour was arrested in January and canceled an earlier planned trip to Egypt. When Nour met with Rice, he quietly passed her a note, thanking her for standing up for him while he was in jail.

But even in Egypt, Rice pulled some punches. She did not meet with the two largest and most important opposition movements: The Muslim Brotherhood and Kifaya. Kifaya, or "enough," is a coalition of activists that has held several prominent anti-Mubarak rallies over the past few months, including one on May 25 in Cairo that was broken up by club-wielding thugs who beat up demonstrators, including many women. Rice condemned the beatings, but didn't get around to inviting members of the group to her meeting with opposition leaders.

As for the Muslim Brotherhood, Rice points out that the group is banned by the Egyptian government and says, "We are going to respect Egyptian laws." But if you're going to support democratic activists in authoritarian countries, you are inevitably going to deal with banned groups. In fact, earlier this year, Rice herself met with dissidents from Belarus whose activities are certainly illegal in that country.

Still, Rice pressed Egypt far more than any senior U.S. official ever has. With Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit by her side, Rice said it is "essential" that Egypt hold free and fair elections this fall, something Egypt has never done. Gheit responded, "Who would object to fair, transparent elections? Everybody wants a fair, transparent election, and they will be so, I assure you."

Almost nobody believes that. For 24 years, President Mubarak has ruled without facing a political opponent. Now he has promised competitive elections, but the rules are so onerous as to virtually guarantee the exclusion of any serious challenger. If Egypt's elections fall short, however, the Egyptians will have to explain why. And Rice will have to explain what the United States is going to do about it.