CAIRO — Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta played down concerns Tuesday about a rift between Egypt’s newly elected president and its military chief following a brief stopover in Cairo aimed at giving senior U.S. officials a better sense of how the country’s first Islamist administration will govern.
The June election of President Mohamed Morsi, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, has provoked unease among secular Egyptians, the military and Egyptian Christians, who worry that the country’s Islamists will upend a long tradition of secular rule.
“I was convinced that President Morsi is his own man, and that he is the president of all the Egyptian people,” Panetta told reporters.
The United States maintains a close relationship with the Egyptian military, which receives about $1.3 billion annually in U.S aid, and is eager to maintain those ties as it prods the ruling military council to turn power over to the new government, despite its lingering wariness. Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the council’s head, recently vowed not to let Egypt fall to a “certain group.”
Panetta met with Tantawi earlier in the day and then was accompanied by the military leader to the presidential palace, where together they met with Morsi. “It is my view, based on what I have seen, that President Morsi and Field Marshal Tantawi have a very good relationship and are working together towards the same ends,” the U.S. defense secretary said.
Panetta, who spent only a few hours in Cairo, expressed confidence that the United States and Egypt would continue to cooperate closely on counterterrorism missions aimed at al-Qaeda and other Islamist extremist groups. From Egypt he traveled to Israel, where he is to discuss Israel’s growing concern that efforts to force Iran to give up its nuclear weapons program are not working. Panetta said that the United States and Israel would review possible responses to the threat posed by the Iranian program, though he declined to offer specifics.
U.S. officials, who are pressing for more time to let sanctions on Iran work, played down the likelihood of Israel conducting an imminent unilateral military strike.
“I think it is the wrong characterization to say we are going to be discussing potential attack plans,” Panetta said. “What we are discussing is various contingencies and how we will respond. . . . We obviously continue to work on a number of options in that area.”
Throughout his five-day trip, Panetta has argued that tougher economic sanctions are squeezing Iran and should be given a chance to force the Iranian government to the negotiating table. Senior Israeli officials have expressed doubts that sanctions will have any effect on Iranian actions.