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ASWAN, Egypt (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Sunday toned down criticism of planned amendments to Egypt's constitution that rights groups have called a step backward for freedom and democracy.
Rice, in Egypt as part of a Middle East tour on the eve of a nationwide referendum on the amendments, said she had broached the issue with President Hosni Mubarak but recognized that political change would have "ups and downs".
"We have had a discussion. I have made my concerns known as well as my hopes for continued reform here in Egypt," Rice told a news conference after meeting with Mubarak.
"The process of reform is one that is difficult. It's going to have its ups and downs. We always discuss these matters in a way that is respectful, mutually respectful. But I have made my concerns known, and we have had a good discussion," she said.
Egypt bills the constitutional amendments as reforms, but both secular and Islamist opponents see them as an attempt to entrench the ruling party's grip on power and have widely predicted that Monday's ballot would be rigged in advance.
The amendments include an anti-terrorism clause that enshrines sweeping police powers of arrest and surveillance in the constitution. Opposition groups, including the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, plan to boycott the ballot.
Before leaving for the region, Rice had said she had hoped Egypt would be in the lead as the Middle East moves toward more openness, pluralism and democracy, and it was "disappointing that this has not happened". Rice had also criticized the timing of the vote, a week after the changes were passed by parliament.
Egypt's foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, had batted back on Saturday before her arrival, saying the amendments were an Egyptian matter and "nobody else has the right to say anything".
"There are extremist and radical streams on Egyptian territory which have sought to shake the political, economic and social structure of Egypt. Egypt is committed to all laws that allow it to achieve its security and consequently the security of this region," Aboul Gheit said on Sunday, defending the amendments.
The amendments would allow Mubarak to dissolve parliament unilaterally and would weaken judicial oversight of elections, which have been marred by complaints of irregularities. The amendments would also bar political activity based on religion, seen as a swipe at the Muslim Brotherhood.
A U.S. campaign for democracy in the Arab world peaked in about 2005 but analysts say the momentum diminished when the Bush administration realized it had serious problems in Iraq.
Rice said Washington was not trying to give orders to Egypt how to proceed with reforms. "We recognize that states do this in their own way, and that they do it in a way that is consistent with their own cultural circumstances," she said.
"It is not a matter to try to dictate to Egypt how this unfolds, but it is a matter to say that Egypt is an extremely important country. That when Egypt leads, people listen."