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Kerry presses for unpopular reforms in Egypt

The Washington Post

Well-known political opposition figures stayed away from meetings with visiting Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday, some for fear of appearing too close to the U.S. in the still-unsettled politics of Egypt two years after the fall of a U.S.-backed dictator.

Kerry encouraged Egypt’s Islamist-led government to take politically difficult economic steps that are crucial to securing international loans and outside investment. President Mohammed Morsi, whom Kerry was to meet Sunday, has been unable to marshal support for such economic measures. His opponents accuse him of reneging on pledges of political and religious openness.

Meanwhile, some $450 million in U.S. aid to Egypt has been frozen in Congress and the International Monetary Fund has held off on loans and debt relief worth more than $4 billion. Egypt has been the most important Arab ally of the U.S. for decades, with ties built largely on Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.

Egypt’s foreign currency reserves have fallen by roughly two-thirds since the 2011 revolution that overthrew longtime secular ruler Hosni Mubarak. Morsi’s government is trying to slow a run on the dollar. Unemployment is rampant, and a diesel-fuel crisis has led to waits of several hours at gas stations.

The ruling Islamists are at an impasse with secular and leftist opposition parties. Political liberals and secular parties resent U.S. urging to take part in voting they say will only further divide the country. They say the U.S. is showing favor to Morsi and Islamists.

Kerry addressed Egypt’s intertwined political and economic problems by meeting with opposition political and religious leaders, human rights activists and business leaders. For some, Kerry’s visit is an unwelcome public reminder that the U.S. is Egypt’s principal international benefactor, and that the money comes with strings.

Ahead of the trip, a senior State Department official said that Kerry would press squabbling politicians to comply with IMF preconditions to hike tax revenues and cut energy subsidies. That will not only bring direct economic relief but “unlock” other foreign investment from the U.S. and elsewhere, the official said.

Kerry said the U.S. has no political favorites in Egypt. “I come . . . on behalf of President (Barack) Obama committed not to any party, not to any one person, not to any specific political point of view,” Kerry said.