CAIRO — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Cairo on Sunday pressing for reforms during the highest-level American visit to Egypt since the ouster of the country’s first democratically elected president.
The Egyptian military’s removal of Mohammed Morsi in July followed by a harsh crackdown on his protesting supporters led the U.S. to suspend hundreds of millions of dollars in aid.
At a joint news conference following a meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy, Kerry said that the suspension of aid to Egypt is not a punishment but a legal requirement after the Egyptian military in July toppled the democratically elected government.
Kerry said the topic was mentioned only briefly in his meeting with Fahmy and that he believed Egyptian authorities understood that rationale.
While acknowledging that Egypt had faced ‘‘difficult challenges’’ and ‘‘turbulent years,’’ including in its relationship with the U.S., he 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, Kerry said.
Fahmy said Kerry’s comments and the roadmap Egypt’s military chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi laid out following the military coup indicate that ‘‘we are all pursuing a resumption of normal relations.’’
The roadmap includes amending the Islamist-tilted constitution adopted under Morsi last year, holding a national referendum before the end of the year and parliamentary and presidential elections by the spring of 2014.
The State Department apparently 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. The department refused to confirm Kerry’s visit until he landed in Cairo, even though Egypt’s official news agency reported the impending trip three days earlier.
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 today between Washington and Cairo.
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.
Egypt’s foreign minister, Nabil Fahmy, said last month that U.S.-Egyptian relations were in ‘‘turmoil’’ and warned that the strain could affect the entire Middle East.
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.
Kerry began his Cairo day stop with a meeting with Fahmy. Later he is to see el-Sissi; the interim president, Adly Mansour, and civic leaders. Kerry intended to underscore the necessity of democratic transition through a transparent and inclusive constitutional process, and free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections.
Only once progress is made on those, American officials say, will the U.S. consider restoring the suspended aid. They say Kerry is eager to assure Egyptians that the U.S. considers Egypt an important friend and bulwark of regional stability, notably because of its peace treaty with Israel.
An initial administration attempt at outreach to post-Morsi Egypt — providing $60 million to spur private investment in Egypt’s flailing economy — has been held up in Congress.
U.S. officials traveling with Kerry said he also would stress the importance of human rights, particularly freedom of the press and assembly, and the role of civil society in ensuring a pluralistic society.
Kerry’s visit comes at a critical time in Egypt’s tense and fractured domestic political situation.
On Friday, a private Egyptian television station halted the airing of the latest episode of a widely popular political satire program after it came under fire for mocking the ultranationalist, pro-military fervor gripping the country. The show’s host, Bassem Youssef, is often compared to U.S. comedian Jon Stewart. The broadcaster said Youssef and his producer violated its editorial policies.
Also, Morsi’s trial was set to begin Monday, a day after Kerry’s scheduled departure.
Morsi supporters planned widespread protests on the day of the trial. Security concerns were so high that the venue for the trial was not yet formally announced. It was expected to be held in a heavily secured police academy in Cairo.
U.S. officials said the timing of the trial and Kerry’s visit were purely coincidental, but that Kerry was likely to impress on his hosts the importance of due process and transparency in all judicial proceedings.
Egypt was Kerry’s first stop on a nine-day tour of the Middle East and Europe. 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.
From Egypt, Kerry planned to travel to Saudi Arabia, Poland, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria and Morocco.