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.
The United States seeks to convince el-Sissi to embrace more moderate policies to achieve stability — and deliver more American aid. U.S. officials say they have seen some small encouraging signs that he is prepared to protect his people's rights, including issuing severe penalties for sexual assault against women and freeing a jailed journalist.
But Washington remains concerned about the Egyptian government's widespread crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood, which el-Sissi ousted from power last July in a coup when he was serving as the nation's army chief.
The Brotherhood, an Islamist political organization, 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 armed forces are thriving on a flood of heavy weapons that are easily smuggled in from Libya.
Taken together, the security problems have contributed to a severe slowing of Egypt's tourism industry that began in early 2011 when the country went through its second political revolution in as many years.
U.S. officials say they now see an opportunity to guide Egypt toward a more inclusive government that Washington believes will help stabilize the country by curbing the violence and, in turn, attracting tourists to boost its economy.
Earlier this month, the U.S. quietly agreed to send an estimated $572 million to Cairo in military and security assistance on top of $200 million in economic aid that was 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.
A senior State Department official traveling with Kerry said the U.S. remains concerned about several of Egypt's hardline policies — including outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, sentencing hundreds of people to death in sham trials and jailing journalists — and is urging el-Sissi to build a more inclusive government. That largely means lifting the ban on the Brotherhood and allowing it to participate in the country's political process.
The State Department official said most of the other worrisome policies were shaped by what he described as a polarizing political environment in Egypt since the coup 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 re-think the direction their country is headed, which is why the U.S. sees an opportunity now to push el-Sissi toward moderation.
Kerry stayed in Cairo for only a few hours before heading to Amman, Jordan, where he will meet with government leaders there to discuss the bloody insurgency and political crisis in neighboring Iraq.
At the press conference, Kerry said the U.S. is “not responsible for what is happening in Iraq.”
Kerry said the United States wanted the Iraqi people to find an inclusive leadership to contain a sweeping Islamist insurgency but Washington would not pick or choose who rules in Baghdad.
"The United States is not engaged in picking or choosing or advocating for any one individual, or series of individuals, to assume the leadership of Iraq," Kerry said. "That is up to the Iraqi people and we have made that clear since day one. It is up to the people of Iraq to choose their future leadership."
Kerry said the U.S. has, however, noted dissatisfaction of the current leadership in Iraq by Kurds, Sunnis and some Shia.
"The United States would like the Iraqi people to find leadership that is prepared to represent all of the people of Iraq, that is prepared to be inclusive and share power,” he said.
Al Jazeera and wire services