U.S. presses Egypt to adopt more moderate policies

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 said 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 past 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 hard-line 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 today 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.