CAIRO – Egypt’s bickering government and opposition need to overcome their differences to create “a sense of political and economic viability” if the country is to thrive as a democracy, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Saturday.
He urged them to compromise for the good of the country.
In meetings with Egypt’s foreign minister and opposition politicians, some of whom plan to boycott upcoming parliamentary elections, Kerry said an agreement on economic reforms to seal a $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan package was critical.
Closing the IMF deal also will unlock significant U.S. assistance promised by President Barack Obama last year.
But Kerry’s message to the liberal and secular opposition may have been blunted as only six of the 11 guests invited by the U.S. Embassy turned up to see the top American diplomat at a group meeting, and three of those six said they still intended to boycott the April polls, according to participants.
Undaunted, Kerry told reporters he had heard great passion from those who did attend and was convinced they wanted to work in Egypt’s best interests.
But after meeting with Foreign Minister Kamel Amr, he acknowledged the difficulty in overcoming the deep differences.
He said he would make that point to President Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist from the Muslim Brotherhood, in their talks Sunday.
“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,” Kerry told reporters, in apparent reference to the stalemate in Washington over the federal budget.
‘There must be a willingness on all sides to make meaningful compromises on the issues that matter most to all of the Egyptian people.”
Kerry spoke by telephone with Mohammed ElBaradei, a Nobel peace laureate who heads the National Salvation Front, an opposition coalition calling for the election boycott.
He also met privately with Amr Moussa, a former minister under ex-President Hosni Mubarak who’s now aligned with the Salvation Front. Moussa, an ex-Arab League head, ran for president last summer.
Neither ElBaradei nor Moussa attended the group meeting.
The Salvation Front says now is not the time for elections that will further polarize the country while violent clashes continue between protesters and security forces, further shaking the faltering economy.
Even as Kerry arrived from Turkey on the latest stop 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 violent anti-Morsi protests Saturday.
In the restive Suez Canal city of Port Said, a police vehicle ran over five people Saturday after protesters marching along a main street refused to allow the car through.
The continuing political turmoil has 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.
Kerry told business leaders that the U.S. is not picking 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.
“It is clear to us that the IMF arrangement needs to be reached and we need to give the market place some confidence,” Kerry said.
“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,” he said. “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.”
Opposition politician Mohammed Abu Hamed said Kerry told the six attendees that Egypt must quickly end the turmoil to restore investor confidence and help the country get the loans it needs. But he said he was unmoved by Kerry’s unity appeal and suggestion that if the opposition wanted its voice heard it should participate in the elections.
“He is coming with conviction that elections are the solution,” Abu Hamed told The Associated Press after the meeting.
“Three of us insisted on our position to boycott elections and explained our opinion,” he said. “The other three said they would take part, but that there needs to be guarantees of transparency and fairness in the elections.”
One invitee who decided not to attend, Ahmed Maher, the founder of a group that helped spark the revolution that toppled Mubarak, said he didn’t go because the meeting’s goals were unclear, its allotted time of about an hour was not long enough and it lacked major opposition figures.
“It is clear that nothing has changed in Washington’s shallow way of dealing with Egypt,” he said. “There are no deep conversations. Everything is just being rushed through.” He added that the elections will be a “one-sided game” because the Muslim Brotherhood is running Egypt.
Kerry finished his day with Kamel Amr at the foreign ministry. Before the meeting, several hundred people protested against Kerry’s visit. They burned Kerry’s pictures and chanted that Washington was siding with the Muslim Brotherhood; they dispersed before Kerry arrived.
The foreign minister said he was hopeful that the Obama administration would come through for Egypt.
“Of course, we expect from friends, especially the United States as a strategic partner, to stand by Egypt in this period, especially on the economic issues,” he said.
Kerry is in Cairo on the sixth leg of a nine-nation trip to Europe and the Middle East.