REUTERS / AP - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry held wide-ranging talks in Cairo on Sunday with President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, urging the Egyptian president to adopt more moderate policies on rights and freedoms.
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Kerry is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Egypt since Sissi, the former military leader who toppled Islamist President Mohamed Morsi after mass protests last year, won a May presidential election.
"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 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.
His visit comes a day after an Egyptian court confirmed death sentences against 183 members of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, including its leader Mohamed Badie, in a mass trial on charges of violence in which one policeman was killed.
Before the visit, the United States expressed concerns over widespread human rights abuses and limits on freedom of expression.
"We have serious concerns about the political environment," said a senior State Department official who briefed reporters en route to Cairo.
The United States, which has counted on Egypt as a close Middle East ally for decades following its 1979 peace treaty with U.S. ally Israel, froze some of the $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt following Morsi's overthrow in response to these concerns.
About $575 million in suspended funds have been released over the past 10 days and will be used to pay existing defence contracts, the State Department official said.
Kerry said he discussed these issues with el-Sissi, adding that the president promised reviews of human rights issues and legislation. Kerry also said the Obama administration is working with the U.S. Congress to sort out differences over the rest of the money designated for Egypt.
"I'm confident that we will be able to ultimately get the full amount of aid," Kerry said.
Washington has also said it will provide 10 Apache attack helicopters to help soldiers battling burgeoning militancy in the Sinai peninsula.
The Obama administration has made clear that the remaining funds, which require congressional approval, will be released once there is evidence that Sissi's government is ruling in truly democratic fashion, the senior State Department official said.
Kerry's visit is part of a broader tour of the Middle East and Europe. Obama said on Friday he would dispatch Kerry to the region for talks on the conflict in Iraq.
While in Egypt, Kerry is also scheduled to meet members of the Arab League.
The official said he would underscore during those talks the severity of the threat posed by Sunni militants to Iraq, the region, and the United States, and the need for Iraqi leaders to form a government not divided along sectarian lines.
"We ask that they are echoing the same message that we are conveying...that addressing Iraq's security situation is much more likely to be successful in the context of an inclusive government that is formed in short order, and can begin addressing this threat from a solid broad foundation of support," the official said.
The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an Al-Qaida offshoot, has seized swaths of territory in northwest and central Iraq including the city of Mosul. It has taken large amounts of weaponry from fleeing Iraqi troops and looted banks.
World powers are deadlocked over the crises in Iraq and Syria. Mainly Shi'ite Iran has said it will not hesitate to protect Shi'ite shrines if asked by Baghdad but Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia has warned Tehran to stay out of Iraq.
Egypt, a mainly Sunni Muslim nation, has the Middle East's largest army but its military forces have played only a limited regional role since they joined a U.S.-led coalition to evict Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991.
U.S. President Barack Obama has offered up to 300 U.S. special forces advisers to help the Iraqi government recapture territory seized by the Islamic State fighters and other Sunni armed groups across north and west Iraq.
But he has held off granting a request for air strikes to protect the government and renewed a call for Iraq's long-serving Shi'ite prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, to do more to overcome sectarian divisions that have fuelled resentment among the Sunni minority.