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Kerry presses Egypt president, military on reform

CAIRO – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was wrapping up a visit to deeply divided Egypt on Sunday with an appeal for unity and reform to the country’s president and military chief.

A day after warning the country’s bickering politicians that they must overcome differences to get Egypt’s faltering economy back on track and maintain its leadership role in the volatile Middle East, Kerry was bringing a similar message to President Mohammed Morsi and his defense minister and intelligence chief. The U.S. is deeply concerned that continued instability in Egypt will have broader consequences in a region already rocked by unrest.

U.S. officials said Kerry will raise Egypt’s key regional role with Morsi and his top security aides, stress the importance of upholding its peace agreement with Israel, cracking down on weapons smuggling to extremists in the Gaza Strip and policing the increasingly lawless Sinai Peninsula while continuing to play a positive role in Syria’s civil war. Yet, with parliamentary elections approaching, his call for harmonizing domestic Egyptian politics is just as important, they said.

Liberal and secular opponents of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood say they will boycott upcoming elections, and violent clashes between protesters and security forces have created an environment of insecurity, complicating Egyptian efforts to secure vital international aid.

In meetings with Egypt’s foreign minister and opposition politicians on Saturday, Kerry said reaching agreement on economic reforms to seal $4.8 billion in International Monetary Fund loans was particularly critical. Closing the IMF deal also will unlock significant U.S. assistance promised by President Barack Obama last year.

But the impact of his message of unity to the opposition was likely blunted as only six of the 11 guests invited by the U.S. Embassy turned up and three of those six said they still intended to boycott the April parliamentary election, according to participants.

Kerry said that the U.S. would not pick sides in Egypt, and he appealed to all sides to come together around human rights, freedom and speech and religious tolerance. Equally essential, he said, is uniting to undertake the reforms necessary to qualify for the IMF package. Those include increasing tax collections and curbing energy subsidies.

However, while expressing sympathy with the passion he heard from the opposition, Kerry suggested U.S. frustration with their tactics even as he maintained that “we’re not here to interfere, but to listen.”

“The best way to ensure human rights and strong political checks and balances ... is through the broadest possible political and economic participation,” Kerry said after meeting Egyptian Foreign Minister Kamel Amr. “We believe that being active, engaging in peaceful participation is essential to building strong communities and healthy democracies.”

In an apparent nod to the current stalemate in Washington over the U.S. federal budget, Kerry acknowledged that compromise is difficult yet imperative.

“I say with both humility and with a great deal of respect that getting there requires a genuine give-and-take among Egypt’s political leaders and civil society groups just as we are continuing to struggle with that in our own country,” he said. `There must be a willingness on all sides to make meaningful compromises on the issues that matter most to all of the Egyptian people.”

The opposition accuses Morsi and the Brotherhood of following in the footsteps of toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak, failing to carry out reforms and trying to install a more religiously conservative system.

Morsi’s administration and the Brotherhood say their foes, who have trailed significantly behind Islamists in all elections since the uprising against Mubarak, are running away from the challenge of the ballot box and are trying to overturn democratic gains.

Egypt’s polarization was underscored as Kerry arrived from Turkey on Saturday on the sixth of nine stops in his first official overseas visit as secretary of state. Activists in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura said a 35-year-old protester was killed when an armored police vehicle crushed him to death during anti-Morsi protests Saturday. And, in the restive Suez Canal city of Port Said, a police vehicle ran over five people after marching protesters refused to allow the car through.

Months of such turmoil have scared away tourists and foreign investors, eroding Egypt’s foreign reserves by nearly two-thirds of what it was before the uprising. Those reserves, which stand at less than $14 billion, are needed to pay for subsidies that millions of poor Egyptians rely on for survival.

“It is paramount, essential, urgent that the Egyptian economy gets stronger, gets back on its feet and it’s very clear that there is a circle of connections in how that can happen,” Kerry told business leaders shortly after his arrival. “To attract capital, to bring money back here, to give business the confidence to move forward, there has to be sense of security, there has to be a sense of political and economic viability.”

After concluding his meetings in Egypt on Sunday, Kerry will head to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, where his focus is expected to be the crisis in Syria that dominated his earlier stops in Britain, Germany, France and Turkey, along with concerns about Iran’s nuclear program and growing Iranian assertiveness in the Persian Gulf. Kerry is set to return to Washington on Wednesday.

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