At a gathering of 700 government officials, academics and students in Cairo’s American University, Ms Rice put regional leaders on notice that the United States would no longer tolerate oppression in the name of stability.

“Throughout the Middle East, the fear of free choices can no longer justify the denial of liberty,” she said.

“It is time to abandon the excuses that are made to avoid the hard work of democracy.”

She levelled particular criticism at Saudi Arabia and Egypt for cracking down on internal dissent and demanded Egyptian elections set for September include monitoring by international observers.

But her strongest rebukes were saved for Syria and Iran.

The Damascus regime was blamed for stirring instability between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as in Iraq and Lebanon.

She lashed also out at Tehran, three days after the first round of the country’s presidential election, saying “the appearance of elections does not mask the organised cruelty of Iran’s theocratic state.”

But in an unexpected tone of contrition, Ms Rice admitted to America’s history of wayward policy in the Middle East.

“For 60 years my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East – and we achieved neither. Now we are taking a different course.”

Ms Rice’s words echoing those spoken by the US President George W Bush in his second inauguration speech where he stated global democracy was the best antidote to Islamic extremism and militant attacks.

However, the message generated some anger among the audience with strong bursts of applause breaking out after Ms Rice was questioned on alleged war crimes against Palestinians and abuses of the Koran by US authorities.

“There is anger in the region,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit said after Ms Rice met Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak.

“We have to control that anger and we have to work with on that anger to build American-Muslim relations.”

Even among pro-reformist leaders, there were concerns about the legitimacy of US policy.

“This (reform) project will not have any credibility without a full withdrawal from Iraq, without a withdrawal from Gaza, and without a return to the road map (peace plan for Israelis and the Palestinians,” Egyptian opposition leader Ayman Nour said.