Two days after the U.S. delivered eight F-16 warplanes to Egypt as part of a military support package, Secretary of State John Kerry relaunched the dialogue with Egyptian officials in Cairo.
Kerry, on the first stop of a Mideast trip aimed at assuaging Arab concerns over the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, began his day in talks with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry. He later will see President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi before leaving for Qatar, where he will hold discussions with Gulf Arab foreign ministers on the Iran deal and its implications for the region.
Despite continuing human rights concerns in Egypt, the Obama administration is increasing military assistance to the country as it confronts growing threats from extremists, particularly in the Sinai Peninsula.
U.S. military assistance to Egypt also had been on hold until earlier this year due to human rights and democracy concerns in the wake of the military overthrow of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in 2013.
Kerry’s visit also came as a verdict was again postponed in the trial of three Al-Jazeera English journalists, whose arrests have sparked widespread condemnation.
Some U.S. lawmakers and numerous advocacy groups are urging Kerry to raise human rights issues with Egyptian authorities, including the arrests of dissidents and journalists and mass trials. U.S. officials have said those concerns would be raised at all of Kerry’s meetings in Cairo and noted that the State Department’s top diplomat for human rights and democracy is accompanying him.
Ahead of his trip, Kerry met on Thursday in Washington with Egyptian-American Mohammed Soltan, who had been sentenced to life in prison in Egypt for financing an anti-government sit-in and spreading “false news.” One of thousands imprisoned after Morsi’s overthrow, Soltan had been on a hunger strike for more than a year before being freed in May after repeated U.S. requests. He is the son of a prominent member of the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
The State Department said Kerry and Soltan discussed his experience in prison and “the importance of distinguishing between peaceful dissent and violent extremism in the fight against terrorism.” In the meeting, Kerry “reaffirmed America’s commitment to promoting respect for human rights and space for civil society as part of our engagement with Egypt,” the department said.
Broadening U.S.-Egyptian trade and economic ties also will be on the table during Kerry’s visit, which comes just days before Egypt inaugurates a second, parallel waterway to allow two-way traffic on the Suez Canal. Egyptian officials are hoping the opening will boost a flagging economy.