CAIRO (AP) — The United States and Egypt put a brave face on badly strained relations on Sunday, vowing to restore their full partnership as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry became the highest-ranking Obama administration official to visit the country since the ouster this summer of its first democratically elected president.
Opening a 10-day tour of the Middle East, Europe and North Africa, Kerry and Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy played down tensions between Washington and Cairo. They pledged to work through the turbulence caused by the military's removal of President Mohammed Morsi and subsequent harsh crackdown on his supporters that led the U.S. to suspend hundreds of millions of dollars in aid.
Yet strains were clearly evident. The State Department expected a frosty reception for Kerry especially with tensions running high on the eve of Monday's scheduled start of Morsi's trial on charges of inciting murder. It refused to confirm Kerry's brief visit until he landed in Cairo, even though Egypt's official news agency reported the impending trip on Friday.
The secrecy was unprecedented for a secretary of state's travel to Egypt, for decades one of the closest U.S. allies in the Arab world, and highlighted the deep rifts that have emerged. Eager to avoid the potential for demonstrations related to his visit or Morsi's impending trial, Kerry was spending most of his six hours on the ground in Cairo at a hotel near the airport. He was to close his visit with meetings at the presidential palace and defense ministry later in the day.
Kerry said that the U.S.-Egyptian relationship should not be defined by American assistance and insisted that the suspension of major amounts of military aid was "not a punishment." He said the topic was only a minor topic in his discussion with Fahmy and held out the prospect of resumptions in the aid as Egypt makes progress in restoring civilian democratic rule and ensuring the protection of basic human rights, including respect for freedom of expression, religion and the press.
"The United States believes that the U.S.-Egypt partnership is going to be strongest when Egypt is represented by an inclusive, democratically-elected, civilian government based on rule of law, fundamental freedoms, and an open and competitive economy," Kerry told reporters at a joint news conference with Fahmy. Kerry spoke of the importance of all trials being transparent and respecting rule of law but did not specifically mention the case against Morsi.
While acknowledging that Egypt had faced "difficult challenges" and "turbulent years," including in its relationship with the U.S., Kerry urged Egyptians to continue their "march to democracy." The U.S. is a friend and partner to the Egyptian people and wants to contribute to the country's success, he said, adding the US would accept an Egyptian offer to set up a "strategic dialogue" that would discuss regional security and counterterrorism efforts among other things.
Fahmy said last month that U.S.-Egyptian relations were in "turmoil" and warned that the strain could affect the entire Middle East.
But on Sunday, he struck a less strident tone. He noted Kerry's positive comments about the "roadmap" to democracy laid out by Egypt's military chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and said they indicated that "we are all pursuing a resumption of normal relations."
"I said a few days ago that Egypt-U.S. relations are undergoing a turbulent phase... but what the American secretary of state said to me during the closed session and here about U.S. support for the Egyptian people and the road map are indications that we all pursuing a resumption of normal relations," Fahmy said. "I thank him for that."
The roadmap includes amending the Islamist-tilted constitution adopted under Morsi last year and putting the new charter to a nationwide referendum before the end of the year, then having parliamentary and presidential elections by the spring of 2014.
Kerry offered cautious praise for the interim government, saying it "has made very important statements about the roadmap and is now engaged" in implementing those steps.
Kerry last was in Egypt in March, when he urged Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-backed government to enact sweeping economic reforms and govern in a more inclusive manner. Those calls went unheeded. Simmering public unhappiness with his rule boiled over when the powerful Egyptian military deposed Morsi on July 3 and established an interim government.
The Obama administration was caught in a bind over whether to condemn the ouster as a coup and cut the annual $1.3 billion in U.S. military assistance that such a determination would legally require.
The U.S. waffled for months before deciding last month to suspend most big-ticket military aid such as tanks, helicopters and fighter jets, while declining to make a coup determination. The U.S. also is withholding $260 million in budget support to the government.
Egypt is receiving billions of dollars in aid from wealthy Gulf Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But Egyptian authorities reacted angrily to the U.S. aid suspension, declaring it a new low point in ties that have been strained since the popular revolt that unseated authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.
With U.S. influence ebbing, Kerry's message about the importance of economic and constitutional reforms was expected to be met with suspicion, if not outright hostility, by Egyptian leaders and a population deeply mistrustful of Washington's motives. Many Egyptians accuse the Obama administration of taking sides in their domestic political turmoil; American officials adamantly deny it.
After meeting Fahmy and civic leaders, Kerry was to see el-Sissi; the interim president, Adly Mansour to stress the necessity of democratic transition through a transparent and inclusive constitutional process, and free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections.
From Egypt, Kerry planned to travel to Saudi Arabia, Poland, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria and Morocco. The trip is widely seen as a damage control mission to ease disagreements between the U.S. and its friends over Syria, Iran and the revelations of widespread U.S. surveillance activities around the globe.