US Secretary of State John Kerry has 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 Mr Kerry’s visit signals an attempt by the Obama administration to thaw a relationship with a longtime Mideast ally that has cooled in recent years during the country’s political turmoil.
“For Egypt, this is also a moment of high stakes as well as a moment of great opportunity,” Mr Kerry said yesterday after meeting Mr el-Sissi. Mr Kerry then headed to Jordan as he began a week-long trip to the Middle East and Europe.
Mr Kerry said Egyptians want better economic opportunities, greater freedoms, a free press and the rule of law.
“We talked about that today and I think we really found ourselves on a similar page of changes that have yet to be made, promises that have yet to be fulfilled, but of a serious sense of purpose and commitment by both of us to try to help achieve those goals,” he said.
Mr Kerry also spoke out about the current situation in Iraq, saying Arab countries should resist funding Sunni fighters in what is turning into a cross-border war between Iraq and Syria because that support could eventually help the fast-spreading insurgency in Iraq.
Meanwhile over the last year, in particular, the US has watched warily as Cairo has outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist political opposition group that was ousted from power last July.
US officials said hard-line policies – including the sentencing of hundreds of people to death in trials lasting only a few hours, and the jailing of journalists – played a part in their refusal to fund all of the $1.5 billion in military and economic aid that Washington usually sends to Cairo each year.
The US reluctance has fuelled frustration among Egyptians who accuse the Obama administration of favouring the Muslim Brotherhood and starving Cairo of help at a time when the country’s economy and security are at risk.
Officials say they have seen some small encouraging signs that Mr el-Sissi is prepared to protect Egyptians’ rights, such as the issuing of tough penalties for sexual assault against women and the freeing of a jailed journalist who works for the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera TV.
Mr Kerry said he discussed these issues with Mr el-Sissi, adding that the president promised reviews of human rights issues and legislation. Mr Kerry also said the Obama administration was working with Congress to sort out differences over the rest of the money designated for Egypt.
“I’m confident that we will be able to ultimately get the full amount of aid,” Mr Kerry said.
But the US remains concerned about the Cairo government’s crackdown against the Brotherhood, which Washington considers a political threat to Mr el-Sissi – not a security risk to Egypt.
The government’s security crackdown has targeted secularists and Brotherhood supporters who have protested against its heavy-handed policies. Some youth leaders who were at the forefront of the 2001 uprising against former president Hosni Mubarak and who also opposed his successor, Mohamed Morsi, are now languishing behind bars, mostly for violating a law that has restricted any public gatherings.
The security problems have contributed to a severe slowing of Egypt’s tourism industry.