Egypt: U.S. criticism over freedoms is interference

CAIRO, Sept 26 Wed Sep 26, 2007 5:42am EDT

CAIRO, Sept 26 (Reuters) - Egypt dismissed on Wednesday rare U.S. public criticism of what the White House called setbacks on freedom of the press and civil society in Egypt as unwelcome meddling in its internal affairs.

"The statement issued by the White House spokesperson over press freedom and civil society is interference in our domestic affairs that is unacceptable to Egypt," an Egyptian Foreign Ministry statement said.

A White House spokeswoman said on Monday that recent steps by Egyptian authorities "appear to contradict the Egyptian government's stated commitment to expand democratic rights".

Egypt, whose government is a key ally of Washington in the Middle East, said the U.S. remarks reflected a "lack of knowledge of the Egyptian legal and political reality".

Over the past month, Egypt has closed a human rights group that aided torture victims and courts sentenced seven journalists to jail over their work, including four convicted of defaming President Hosni Mubarak and his politician son Gamal.

Analysts say waning U.S. public pressure on Egypt had given the state a freer hand over the past year to act against critics in the run-up to an eventual transition of power from Mubarak, who at 79 has been in power for a quarter century.

The most obvious successor is Mubarak's 43-year-old son Gamal, who denies having presidential ambitions but holds a senior post in the ruling party.

A prominent Egyptian dissident who met U.S. President George W. Bush in Prague in June as part of a group of dissidents from around the world said he believed Washington had been trying to press Cairo on reforms "informally behind closed doors", but that Egypt misread the signals.

The dissident, Egyptian-American sociologist Saadeddin Ibrahim, has welcomed the U.S. criticism but said it came "pretty late".

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