CAIRO — The Obama administration implicitly endorsed Egypt’s new military-backed government Sunday with a visit from Secretary of State John F. Kerry, sealing the repair of a crucial Mideast bond and a return of American partnership with Egyptian authoritarianism after the tumult of the Arab Spring.
The United States has recently closed ranks with Egypt’s authorities, moving to restore suspended military aid despite lingering congressional objections about human rights abuses. All but about $78 million of an initial pledge of more than $600 million has been released, in spite of concerns about mass death sentences for political opponents, the jailing of journalists and the narrowing of free speech under the military-backed leadership that assumed power after a July coup.
Underscoring at least the partial return to the old dynamic in which regional security concerns largely defined the relationship, Kerry pledged Sunday that Congress would soon approve the delivery of Apache helicopters that Egypt badly wants. The aircraft have been held up over concerns that they might be misused.
He said the attack helicopters will be used against the surging Egyptian militant forces affiliated with or inspired by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a Sunni jihadist group.
The group’s rapid military gains in recent weeks and the potential unraveling of Iraq overshadowed Kerry’s visit to Egypt, a Sunni Arab nation that has long been a U.S. political and security partner. The Obama administration is seeking Sunni help to curb support and cut illicit funding for ISIS.
Kerry was the highest-ranking U.S. official to meet with President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, the former army chief who easily won election in May. Although he represents a return to elected rule in Egypt, as the United States had urged, his military ties and crackdown on opponents and others undercut his democratic credentials.
Kerry said he urged Sissi to rein in judicial and free speech abuses, but he offered mostly praise for the new leader during remarks later with Foreign Minister Sameh Hassan Shoukry.
“There is no question that Egyptian society is stronger when all of its citizens have a say and stake in its success,” he said. “I welcome recent statements from President Sissi.”
Kerry also met with a representative of an election monitoring group, advocates for women’s rights and mild critics of the government. The group contained none of the fiercest critics or prominent organizations pushing for legal and human rights protections in Egypt, as well as prisoner rights.
Egypt faces simultaneous economic and security crises, with a limping economy, sluggish tourism, high unemployment and the spread of militancy in the Sinai Peninsula, which is flush with heavy weaponry smuggled easily from Libya.
Kerry has argued that a more politically inclusive and predictable government will stabilize Egypt, soothe international investment fears and attract vital tourism.
Earlier this month, President Obama called Sissi to congratulate him on his election, signaling an end to a period of estrangement and frustration on both sides that dated to the 2011 ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, and the political confusion and dysfunction of the Islamist-backed government that followed.
The army ousted President Mohamed Morsi in a coup in July, and the former Muslim Brotherhood leader remains jailed and largely incommunicado. Hundreds have died in street protests and other violence related to the upheaval.
Analysts and opponents of Sissi contend that his government is throttling opposition even more harshly than Mubarak, who had held power for decades. The Muslim Brotherhood political movement was banned under Mubarak and is now banned again. The United States, although never an ally of the movement, is pushing Sissi to ease up on what is widely seen as an attempt to extinguish the group as a meaningful political force.
“We have lots of concerns about a range of issues that are related to the political environment, such as the demonstrations law, the imprisonment of journalists and secular activists, the lack of space in general for dissent, the mass trials and death sentences,” said a senior State Department official traveling with Kerry.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to outline Kerry’s goals ahead of his visit, said there are “a few flickering signs of positive movement” from Egypt, including the release last week of an Al Jazeera journalist. There are also encouraging signals that the government will begin to address rampant sexual harassment and sexual violence against women.
Egypt has chafed under criticism from Washington and the brief suspension of some aid last year.
Egyptian officials in Washington have lobbied Congress, officials and opinion makers to argue that the country is better off and a better partner for the United States with the army back in a dominant role.
But Sissi is also assuming that the spat over money will be short-lived, Egyptian officials and analysts said.“I think that there has been some change in the American perception of what’s happening in Egypt,” said one high-ranking official at Egypt’s Foreign Ministry, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid.
U.S. lawmakers may not like Egypt’s political trajectory, in which democracy is taking a back seat to security concerns, he said, but they have no choice other than to accept Sissi as a partner.
Washington is “realizing that the only way to preserve interests is to listen to the people of Egypt, not to ignore it — not to humiliate them and their choices by saying, ‘Morsi was elected,’ ” he said.
Egypt is banking on its strategic value as operator of the vital Suez Canal and enforcer of the 1979 U.S.-brokered peace treaty with Israel, as well as the staying power of a bilateral relationship that has seen billions of dollars in mostly military aid delivered by Washington every year for decades, analysts and Egyptian officials said.
Congress has attached new conditions to the aid this year, including requiring evidence that Egypt is maintaining its commitment to a strategic relationship with the United States and meeting its obligations under the peace treaty. Kerry determined in April that Egypt is doing so.
Hauslohner reported from Irbil, Iraq. Erin Cunningham contributed to this report.