CAIRO – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday made the highest-level American visit to Egypt since President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi took office as Washington presses the former army chief to adopt more moderate policies.
Economic and security problems are undermining Egypt’s stability, and Kerry’s visit signals an attempt by the Obama administration to haw its relationship with a longtime Mideast ally.
U.S. officials say they have seen some small encouraging signs that el-Sissi is prepared to protect Egyptians’ rights. They cite the issuing of tough penalties for sexual assault against women and the freeing a jailed journalist.
El-Sissi ousted Egypt’s first freely elected president, Mohammed Morsi, last July, after widespread protests against the Islamist leader and his Muslim Brotherhood group.
The U.S. remains concerned about the Cairo government’s crackdown against the Brotherhood. At the same time, Egyptians’ frustrations with the U.S. have grown, spurred by Washington’s reluctance to release hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to help bolster Egypt’s security.
“Obviously this is a critical moment of transition in Egypt, enormous challenges,” Kerry said at the start of a meeting with Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry.
Kerry said the U.S. hopes to work closely with el-Sissi, who was sworn in earlier this month, despite what he called “issues of concern.”
Shoukry said he looked forward to a “fruitful discussion.”
A senior State Department official travelling with Kerry said the U.S. was concerned about several hard-line policies, including the outlawing of the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, the sentencing hundreds of people to death in trials lasting only a few hours and the jailing of journalists.
The U.S. wants el-Sissi to build a more inclusive government, and that largely means lifting the ban on the Brotherhood and allowing it to participate in the political process.
The official said most of the other worrisome policies were shaped by what the official described as a polarizing political environment in Egypt since the political overhaul last July.
The official briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the diplomatic issues by name.
The official said the security threat and the economic downturn have prompted Egyptians to rethink the direction their country is headed, which is why the U.S. sees an opportunity now to push el-Sissi toward moderation.
The Brotherhood has responded with protests that have turned into violent clashes between demonstrators and government security forces.
Egypt is also facing a growing jihadi threat in the Sinai Peninsula, where militants are thriving on a flood of heavy weapons easily smuggled from Libya.
These security problems have contributed to a severe slowing of Egypt’s tourism industry that began in early 2011 when a popular uprising overthrew its longtime leader, President Hosni Mubarak.
In 2012, and with the Muslim Brotherhood’s backing, Mohammed Morsi was elected president in Egypt’s first democratic vote. He was overthrown by el-Sissi almost exactly a year later.
Egypt has bristled at the American criticism and refusal to release hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid that Cairo has come to depend on over the years.
The U.S. this month quietly agreed to send an estimated $572 million to Egypt in military and security assistance on top of $200 million in economic aid already delivered.
But Egypt is still calling for the U.S. to send the rest of its annual $1.5 billion in aid, most of it for the military, which has been suspended until Washington believes Cairo is committed to democracy.
Kerry planned to stay in Cairo for only a few hours before heading to Amman, Jordan, for meetings with government leaders about the crisis in Iraq.
© The Canadian Press, 2014