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 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,” Kerry told reporters after meeting el-Sissi. Kerry then headed to Jordan as he began a weeklong trip to the Mideast and Europe.
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.
Over the last year, in particular, the U.S. has watched warily as Cairo has outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist political opposition group that was ousted from power last July.
U.S. officials cite hardline policies — including the sentencing of hundreds of people to death in trials lasting only a few hours, and the jailing of journalists — in refusing to fund all of the $1.5 billion in military and economic aid that Washington usually sends to Cairo each year.
The U.S. reluctance has fueled frustration among Egyptians who accuse the Obama administration of favoring the Muslim Brotherhood and starving Cairo of help at a time when the country’s economy and security are at risk.
Earlier this month, the U.S. 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.
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 who works for the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera TV.
Kerry said he discussed these issues with el-Sissi, adding that the president promised reviews of human rights issues and legislation.
Kerry also said they discussed the trial of three Al-Jazeera English correspondents on trial on terrorism-related charges since February. A verdict was due Monday in a case that has caused an uproar and concerns for freedom of expression in Egypt.
“He gave me a very strong sense of his commitment to make certain that the process he has put in place, a re-evaluation of the human rights legislation, a re-evaluation of the judicial process and other choices that are available to him, are very much on his mind,” Kerry said.
Kerry also the Obama administration is working with the U.S. 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,” Kerry said.
But the U.S. remains concerned about the Cairo government’s crackdown against the Brotherhood, which Washington considers a political threat to 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, Mohammed Morsi, are now languishing behind bars, mostly for violating a law that has restricted any public gatherings.
The president was sworn in earlier this month after leading a revolt last summer against former Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader who was the nation’s first freely elected leader. Since Morsi’s ouster, the Brotherhood has responded with protests that have turned into violent clashes between demonstrators and government security forces.
A Brotherhood spokesman said the group sees “no political process whatsoever in Egypt” to participate in and that Morsi’s removal from office was a coup.
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.
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.
The security problems have contributed to a severe slowing of Egypt’s tourism industry that began in early 2011 when a popular uprising overthrew Mubarak, president for three decades.