CAIRO — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Monday called on Egypt to hold free and transparent presidential elections next month in a vote that critics say will be neither.
On the first day of a week-long trip to the Middle East, Tillerson met with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, the former military general who came to power in a coup. Sissi is running for a second four-year term after several potential candidates were arrested or otherwise discouraged from challenging him. The only other candidate on the ballot is a little-known supporter of Sissi who filed at the last moment, leaving Sissi effectively unopposed.
Earlier in the day, Tillerson met with Foreign Minister Sameh al-Shoukry. In a joint news conference aftgerwards, Tillerson pledged that the United States would remain “steadfast” in supporting Egypt as it battles militants who have attacked mosques and churches in which people have been massacred while praying.
Aides said Tillerson privately raised U.S. concerns about democracy and human rights, particularly in the run-up to the March presidential election. Tillerson did not publicly expand on what he had said, other than restate U.S. support for free elections everywhere.
“The United States, as it does in all countries, supports a transparent and credible electoral process and all citizens being given the right and the opportunity to participate freely and fairly,” he told reporters.
Tillerson said they also had discussed “the promotion and protection of human rights and the vital role of civil society in Egypt.”
Many human rights groups consider this the most repressive political environment in modern Egyptian history. Hundreds of websites are blocked, and human rights groups say civilians have been among the casualties during a military anti-terrorist campaign in the northern Sinai. Egypt’s prosecutor general is investigating leading opposition figures who have called for a boycott of the presidential election.
When asked about the allegations of political repressenion in Egypt, Shoukri said that “development in the social and political field is an evolutionary process.”
“The Egyptian people have shown their commitment and their determination and their ability to change their course and to indicate their dissatisfaction if they deemed they were dissatisfied,” he added. “They have been able to change two governments in the last seven years, and they have undertaken legislative elections and know how to protect their rights and advocate.”
But Shourkry also said that while Egypt values U.S. support, the two diplomats had agreed on the principle of not interfering with the internal affairs of the other country.
Tillerson did not answer a question about whether the United States would consider withholding more military aid if it determined Egypt’s elections were not fair and credible. Last August, the United States denied Egypt $95.7 million in aid and withheld another $195 million due to its failure to make progress on respecting democratic norms and human rights.
Much of the discussion appeared to center on Egypt’s attempts to combat militants. On Friday, it began airstrikes in the northern Sinai targeting terrorists like the Islamic State, which also is commonly known by the acronym ISIS.
“We agreed that we would continue our close cooperation on counterterrorism measures, including our joint commitment to the defeat of ISIS, and Egypt has been a very important member of the defeat-ISIS coalition from the beginning,” Tillerson said. “Egypt deals with the threats of ISIS themselves and are dealing with it currently in the Sinai.”
Asked about the prospects for negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear weapons development, Tillerson said the United States is still assessing whether Pyongyang is willing to begin talks. He said it is “up to Pyongyang to decide when they’re ready to engage in a sincere and meaningful way. They know what has to be on the table for discussions.”