CAIRO — Well-known political opposition figures stayed away from meetings with visiting Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Saturday, some for fear of appearing too close to the United States in the still-unsettled politics of Egypt two years after the fall of a U.S.-backed dictator.
Kerry encouraged Egypt’s Islamist-led government to take politically difficult economic steps that are crucial to securing international loans and outside investment. President Mohamed Morsi, whom Kerry will see Sunday, has been unable to marshal support for such economic measures. His opponents accuse him of reneging on pledges of political and religious openness.
Meanwhile, some $450 million in U.S. aid to Egypt has been frozen in Congress, and the International Monetary Fund has held off on loans and debt relief worth more than $4 billion. Egypt has been the most important Arab ally of the United States for decades, with ties built largely on Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.
Egypt’s foreign currency reserves have fallen by roughly two-thirds since the 2011 revolution that overthrew longtime secular ruler Hosni Mubarak. Morsi’s government is trying to slow a run on the U.S. dollar. Unemployment is rampant, and a diesel-fuel crisis has led to waits of several hours at gas stations.
“We expect from friends, and particularly from the United States as a strategic partner, to stand by Egypt in this period,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Amr said after a meeting with Kerry.
The ruling Islamists are at an impasse with secular and leftist opposition parties. The umbrella National Salvation Front has called for a boycott of upcoming parliamentary elections in protest of a national constitution whose strong Islamist stamp also worries some in the United States.
Political liberals and secular parties resent the U.S. push for them to take part in voting they say will further divide the country. They say the U.S. is showing favor to Morsi and Islamists.
Kerry addressed Egypt’s intertwined political and economic problems by meeting with opposition political and religious leaders, human rights activists and business leaders. For some, Kerry’s visit is an unwelcome public reminder that the United States is Egypt’s principal international benefactor — and that the money comes with strings.
National Salvation Front leader Hamdeen Sabahi refused to meet with Kerry, who had invited a mix of opposition figures to a meeting at his hotel. After Sabahi’s announcement Friday, fellow NSF leader Mohamed ElBaradei also decided against the meeting. Kerry spoke to him by phone after arriving in Egypt on Saturday.
Opposition figure Amr Moussa declined the group invitation but held a private session with Kerry, out of the view of cameras.
Kerry told reporters later that he had not heard anything from opposition figures to suggest they will change their minds about the vote boycott.
Ahead of the meetings, a senior State Department official traveling with Kerry said the secretary of state would press squabbling politicians to comply with IMF preconditions to increase tax revenue and cut energy subsidies. That would not only bring direct economic relief but “unlock” other foreign investment from the U.S. and elsewhere, the official said on the condition of anonymity to preview Kerry’s message.
Kerry called his closed-door session with opposition leaders productive, but he emerged with a warning. “It is paramount, essential, urgent, that the Egyptian economy get stronger, get back on its feet,” he said.
He offered U.S. help but said investors are spooked.
“To attract capital, to bring money back here that will invest and give business the confidence to move forward, there has to be a sense of security, and there has to be a sense of economic political viability,” Kerry said.
He added that the United States has no political favorites in Egypt.
“I come here on behalf of President Obama, committed not to any party, not to any one person, not to any specific political point of view,” Kerry said.
The belt-tightening is widely unpopular, and Kerry’s appeal comes as political parties and Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood-backed government jockey ahead of parliamentary elections set to begin April 22.
“For there to be agreement on doing the kinds of economic reforms that would be required under an IMF deal, there has to be a basic political . . . agreement among all of the various players,” the official traveling with Kerry said.
Egypt said Thursday that it would invite the IMF to reopen talks about the loans. Terms of the package were agreed to in principle in November but put on hold weeks later because of widespread violence and street protests.
The 6th of April movement, a youth opposition group that opposed Mubarak and now opposes the Muslim Brotherhood’s ruling party, said it refused to be a “checked box” on Kerry’s agenda.
The “so-called opposition meeting arranged by the U.S. Embassy is a collection of ‘feloul,’ ” or remnants of the old regime, “and minor party leaders who do not represent the youth of Egypt,” the 6th of April movement said in a statement on Facebook.
Investment Minister Osama Saleh expressed hope that a deal could be reached by the end of April, Reuters reported.
Ahmad Kamel Saleh, a spokesman for Moussa’s political party, said a deputy attended the group meeting in Moussa’s stead “because we see that we don’t have anything extra to say regarding the meeting and the opposition’s stand regarding the elections.”
“We do not see that anybody is trying to interfere,” he added.
Also Saturday, activists accused police of excessive force and running over protesters in two Egyptian cities, killing one, the Associated Press reported. More than 70 people have been killed in clashes with police since late January, the AP reported.
Human Rights Watch said Saturday that Morsi should “order the police to limit any use of force to what is strictly necessary.”
Kerry planned to see a representative from the international human rights group during his stay.
Sharaf al-Hourani contributed to this report.