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Thursday February 11th, 2016 4:12PM

US, Egypt try to put brave face on strained ties

By The Associated Press
CAIRO (AP) -- The United States and Egypt tried Sunday to put a brave face on their badly frayed ties and committed to restoring a partnership undermined by the military ouster of Egypt's first democratically elected president.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry became the highest-ranking Obama administration official to visit the country since the military toppled Mohammed Morsi in July and cracked down on his Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

Those moves led the U.S. to suspend hundreds of millions of dollars in aid. Morsi's trial on charges of inciting murder was expected to begin Monday, at a location east of the capital. There were fears of renewed clashes between his backers and government security forces.

Kerry, who was starting a 10-day trip to the Middle East, Europe and North Africa, and Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy pledged to ease tensions between Washington and Cairo. Yet the strains were clearly evident.

The State Department expected a frosty reception for Kerry, especially with tensions running high on the eve of Morsi's trial. The department refused to confirm Kerry's brief visit until he landed in Cairo, even though Egypt's official news agency reported the impending trip 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 spent most of his time at a hotel near the airport. He ended his visit with meetings at the presidential palace and defense ministry.

Kerry said that the U.S.-Egyptian relationship should not be defined by American assistance. He insisted that the suspension of military aid was "not a punishment" and said it was a minor topic in his talks with Fahmy.

America' chief diplomat held out the prospect of aid resumption 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 news conference with Fahmy.

Kerry spoke of the importance of all trials being transparent and respecting rule of law, but did not specifically mention Morsi's case, according to aides present in the meetings.

Instead, as he did in the news conference with Fahmy, Kerry spoke generally of U.S. disapproval of politically motivated arrests and prosecutions, and urged Egyptian authorities to respect due process and be transparent in any criminal proceedings, they said.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the private talks, said Kerry pressed the Egyptians not to renew a state of emergency that grants the government sweeping powers and is due to expire on Nov. 14.

Kerry also pushed for an end to the crackdown on Morsi supporters and other critics who renounce violence, the officials said.

The military chief, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, has presented a "road map" to democracy that 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 this spring.

The officials said el-Sissi reiterated his commitment to that timetable, but appealed for the U.S. and others to be patient as Egypt struggles to restore democracy and get its economy back on track, the officials said.

Fahmy said last month that U.S.-Egyptian relations were in "turmoil" and the strain could affect the entire Middle East.

But on Sunday, he was less dire. He said Kerry's positive comments about the road map indicated that "we are all pursuing a resumption of normal relations."

Kerry offered cautious praise, saying the interim government "has made very important statements about the road map and is now engaged" in putting those steps in place.

Kerry last was in Egypt in March, when he urged Morsi to enact economic reforms and govern in a more inclusive manner. Those calls went unheeded. Simmering public unhappiness with his rule boiled over when the powerful military deposed Morsi.

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 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 troubled since the revolt that unseated authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.

According to the U.S. officials, Kerry made the point that relying entirely on contributions from the oil-rich Gulf states is not sustainable, and that serious reform is needed to encourage foreign investment, boost domestic growth and restore the country's once vibrant tourism sector.

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.

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.
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