Bolstered by the victory of pro-American parties in Lebanon's legislative elections, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Arab leaders...

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BEIRUT, Lebanon — Bolstered by the victory of pro-American parties in Lebanon’s legislative elections, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Arab leaders yesterday the United States no longer would tolerate repressive regimes in the name of political stability.

In a major speech before government leaders, academics and students in Cairo, Egypt, Rice laid out a forceful case for a move toward democracy in the Muslim world. She singled out regular U.S. targets Syria and Iran. But she also criticized the United States’ two staunchest Arab allies, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for imprisoning dissidents and restricting free speech.

“For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither,” Rice told the hand-picked crowd at the American University. “Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.”

By choosing Egypt — the most populous Arab country and the second-largest recipient of U.S. economic and military aid in the world, after Israel — as the venue for her speech, Rice appeared to be sending a message to U.S. allies that they cannot stall change indefinitely.

“Throughout the Middle East, the fear of free choices can no longer justify the denial of liberty. It is time to abandon the excuses that are made to avoid the hard work of democracy.”

While the Bush administration might want repressive regimes like Egypt and Saudi Arabia to change, analysts say it can use only limited pressure on the two, which it needs as allies in its “war on terrorism.”

“The Americans are not looking for revolution. They’re looking for genuine change, just short of revolution,” said Michael Young, a leading Lebanese analyst and newspaper columnist. “This is more than a nudge. This is the Americans saying, ‘Look, you’ve got to change.’ But these changes are constrained by the U.S. need for these countries to collaborate against terrorism.”

In her speech, Rice urged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to stick to his pledge to hold the country’s first multiparty elections in September. Rice did not address complaints that the election system devised by Mubarak, and approved last month by a popular referendum, requires opposition parties to get permission from Egypt’s ruling party to run.

Egyptians say the system prevents any serious challenge to Mubarak or his ruling coalition.

Rice did criticize the attacks on opposition activists by Mubarak’s supporters during the referendum. She also took a swipe at Mubarak’s ruling of Egypt under emergency laws since he came to power in 1981. The laws restrict free speech, ban public gatherings and give the Egyptian security services sweeping powers.

“The day must come when the rule of law replaces emergency decrees, and when the independent judiciary replaces arbitrary justice,” Rice said. “Opposition groups must be free to assemble, and to participate, and to speak to the media. Voting should occur without violence or intimidation.”

In Saudi Arabia, Rice noted, there were “good first steps” toward democracy with elections for municipal councils earlier this year. But the councils have little power, and women were not allowed to vote or seek office.

Like other Bush administration officials, Rice’s most stringent attacks were against Syria and Iran. She said last week’s presidential election in Iran was not democratic because an unelected council of clerics barred dozens of reform candidates from running.

But analysts note the restrictions imposed on candidates in Iran are similar to those of Mubarak’s. In contrast to its criticism of Iran, the Bush administration has largely supported Mubarak’s restrictive election plan.

“The red line is that Americans don’t want anything that would undermine or destabilize these regimes,” Young said of U.S. reluctance to impose too much pressure on Egypt and Saudi Arabia. “They’re not going to push these regimes over the edge.”