CAIRO (AP) — The United States, seizing on Egypt’s weak economy and shaky security, is seeking to convince its new president to embrace more moderate policies to achieve stability — and deliver more American aid
In the few weeks since President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi officially took office, 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 militants 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.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Cairo on Sunday to meet with el-Sissi in the highest-level American visit since the new president took office this month after winning election in May.
The visit signals an attempt by the U.S. to thaw its decades-long relationship with Egypt, which has bristled at the American criticism and refusal to release hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid that Cairo has come to depend on over the years.
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.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Kerry’s trip aims to “reaffirm our strong partnership” with Egypt. She said Kerry will also discuss regional issues including Iraq, Syria, Libya, Israeli-Palestinian relations, “and the extremist and terror threats we all face.”
A senior State Department official traveling with Kerry said the U.S. remains concerned about several of Egypt’s hard-line 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 plans to stay 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.
While in Cairo, Kerry also plans to meet with Foreign Minister Sameh Hassan Shoukry and Arab League Secretary General Nabil el-Araby.