CAIRO Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday voiced support for Egypt's transition to democracy but made few specific pledges of aid and steered clear of a debate over the pace of forthcoming elections.
In her first visit to Cairo since long-time ally Hosni Mubarak was toppled by a mass uprising, Clinton signaled the United States would try to preserve the strong alliance with Egypt that has been a cornerstone of U.S. Middle East policy.
"You broke barriers and overcame obstacles to pursue the dream of democracy and the United States and President Obama and I will stand with you as you make this journey," she told a news conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Elaraby.
"This moment in history belongs to you. This is your achievement," she said.
Despite lavishing praise on Egyptians for the uprising that ended Mubarak's 30-year rule, she encountered criticism of the United States' long support for him and of what is widely seen as Washington's initial ambivalence about the protests.
"We offered a serious critique of U.S. foreign policy toward Egypt and the Middle East," said Ahmed Naguib, a pro-democracy activist who joined about two dozen others to meet privately with Clinton, told Reuters.
"We need to see a foreign policy that is receptive and in line with the reform movements sweeping across the region."
U.S. President Barack Obama's praise for the protesters when Mubarak stepped down on February 11 was too little too late for the Egyptian activists, who felt the White House gave Mubarak too much support during the uprising.
'DAUNTING' ELECTORAL PROCESS
One coalition of pro-democracy activists said it had turned down an invitation to meet Clinton in protest at U.S. policy toward Egypt and the U.S. position on the anti-Mubarak revolt.
The January 25 coalition, made up of six youth groups, said in a statement that Clinton was not welcome "because the U.S. administration long supported Mubarak's corrupt, dictatorial regime financially, politically and morally."
They also called for a more balanced relationship between Cairo and Washington, whose influence they blame for shaping Egyptian policies including their country's role in enforcing the blockade of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.
Clinton made a pitch for Washington to retain its close ties to Cairo, saying: "Egypt and the United States have many strategic interests in common and a democratic Egypt will continue to have strategic interests with the United States."
The military, which receives about $1.3 billion a year from the United States, has governed Egypt since Mubarak stepped down. Clinton is due to meet the council's leader, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, on Wednesday.
The military has promised to return power to an elected government within six months. Diplomats, analysts and Egyptian politicians believe the army does not want to stay in power.
Leading members in the Egyptian reform movement worry that the timetable set by the military is too tight and will give an advantage to the well-organized Muslim Brotherhood and remnants of Mubarak's National Democratic Party.
Asked about those concerns, Clinton said: "We know that there is an internal debate within Egypt itself as to the timing and pace of when the election should be held."
She added: "We don't have an opinion. We have a clear message of support for what the Egyptians decide."
U.S. officials have privately voiced concerns about the fact that parliamentary elections are to be held in June, possibly before many political parties will have time to organize after decades of oppression by Mubarak.
"There is no question that this is very fast," said a senior U.S. official. "The notion that they are doing this all in a quite contracted period, referendum and then two elections within a period of months for a country that hasn't had a proper political process for 30 years, is daunting."
U.S. concerns in the new Egypt include the role the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood might play in the government and how that could affect Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
Essam al-Erian, a spokesman for the Brotherhood, said the organization had not been invited to meet Clinton.
"We have not been invited and if we are we will reject (the invitation)," he said. "Any American intervention will be to halt the revolution and obstruct it and not to support it."
(Writing and additional reporting by Tom Perry; editing by Angus MacSwan)