Opposition leader Ayman Nour listened on a jailhouse radio to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telling reporters here Tuesday that his imprisonment was a "setback" to democratic reform in Egypt.
Mr. Nour, who came in a distant second to President Hosni Mubarak in the Sept. 7 presidential vote, has been in jail since Dec. 24 on forgery charges in what his supporters call a deliberate attempt by the government to neutralize one of its more popular critics.
But critics of Mr. Mubarak's government say Nour's incarceration is just one of many setbacks to the beginnings of democratic reform in Egypt, publicly advocated by Washington.
In the past two weeks, Mubarak has postponed local council elections until 2008 and has stripped four prominent and outspoken judges of their legal immunity. The judges were investigating allegations of vote-rigging during last fall's parliamentary elections and were part of a growing movement calling for a new law that would provide for more judicial independence.
Ms. Rice arrived in the Middle East Tuesday specifically to attempt to further isolate militant Hamas after its victory in Palestinian elections last month. Wednesday, Mubarak gave no ground to the US and told Rice it was imperative to support Palestinian leadership.
While many of the liberal opposition groups question whether Washington will continue pressuring Egypt to undertake greater reform after Islamists - the Muslim Brotherhood - made electoral gains here and Hamas's win in the Palestinian territories, Ms. Rice assured a group of dissidents Wednesday that the US will continue applying pressure.
"One good thing about having the [Egyptian] president stand for election and ask for the consent of the governed is that there is a program," Rice told a group of dissidents, editors and professors, the Associated Press reported Wednesday.
Several of the activists told Rice that Mubarak is setting up a false choice between his autocratic rule and the Muslim Brotherhood.
The activists did not agree, however, on how Rice should react to the Brotherhood, which is officially banned in Egypt. Rice has refused to meet with Muslim Brotherhood members and they were not represented at Wednesday's meeting.
"Eliminating the Muslim Brotherhood is totally nondemocratic," said Tarek Heggy, a writer and former petroleum executive. "The issue is how can we compete with them."
But "the liberal parties have very limited inroads in society," says Samer Shehata, a professor of Arab studies at Georgetown University in Washington who is currently writing a book about last year's elections. "The political parties are not able for the most part to articulate their concerns in a way that resonates with the people," he adds, "while the Muslim Brotherhood on the other hand does that very well."
Like other Islamist parties throughout the region, the Brotherhood has been able to build a devoted political base by providing basic services to their constituencies. "The political parties also suffer from the fact that they don't provide social services for Egyptians," Mr. Shehata says. "The Muslim Brotherhood does, and some members of parliament do, and that gives them a significant advantage."
Egypt's opposition still sees Mubarak as the greatest threat to democracy and says that as the Muslim Brotherhood comes out of the shadows it will begin to lose its appeal.
"Hamas won, what's wrong?" says George Ishak, of Egypt's prodemocracy kifaya movement. "The Muslim Brotherhood has a challenge now, to see whether they have a political vision or not. It's at a very critical point. Let them show themselves, and then you can judge them."
The issue of how to compete against the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood has preoccupied Egypt's secular opposition, which won only 12 seats out of 444 contested seats in the fall election. The Brotherhood took 88 seats. Now, many who hope pressure from the US would help their cause wonder if Washington's already modest pressure on the regime will recede in the face of a regional Islamist resurgence.
"We know that Palestine is important, we know that the Hamas issue is important, we know the Iraqi issue is important, and on top of the list of priorities in talks between Egypt and the US," says Gameela Ismail, Nour's wife and the spokeswoman for his Tomorrow Party. "However this should not at all push downwards on the same list the issues of democracy and reform."
In a statement by Nour, read by Ms. Ismail, he said he "believes that political reform cannot be restricted to his case only, but it also cannot be separated from it. Because his case is just one aspect of the economic and political corruption and imbalance in Egypt and the regime's desire to monopolize power."
• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.