Secretary of State John Kerry made an unannounced visit to Egypt to meet with recently inaugurated President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on the first leg of a Europe and Middle East tour.
Kerry is the highest ranked U.S. official to visit Egypt since al-Sisi was elected president in May. Al-Sisi led the ousting of democratically elected President Mohamad Morsi while commander-in-chief of the Egyptian military.
The U.S.-Egyptian relationship has been strained since, but Washington appears ready to work closely with Egypt once again. Kerry announced Sunday the United States would unlock $575 million in military aid it froze following Morsi’s ouster.
That money will be used to pay off existing military contracts, but will also provide for 10 Apache attack helicopters.
A State Department official told NBC Kerry discussed both regional and domestic issues with al-Sisi. The most pressing issue Kerry looks to get into is the continually desperate situation in Iraq.
"With the regional issues, as critical as they are -- Syria, Iraq and other issues regarding instability through terrorism in the Sinai, elsewhere -- we have a lot to talk about," said Kerry as he met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Samah Shoukri.
Domestically, Kerry was expected to bring up the crackdown on activists and journalists following Morsi’s ouster and the 183 death sentences handed to Muslim Brotherhood members that were confirmed by an Egyptian court last week. Critics say the imprisonments and trials are politically motivated.
The United States worries the harsh treatment of political opponents could increase tensions and divide Egypt in the long run. One senior State Department official told reporters the Egyptian government "in some ways (is) radicalizing certain aspects of Egyptian society in ways that are not supportive of overall stability in Egypt."
Egypt contends the Muslim Brotherhood is linked to terrorist organizations like Hamas in Palestine, but the U.S. disagrees.
The State Department did note some positive moves in Egypt recently, including al-Sisi’s campaign to curb Egypt’s serious sexual assault problem and the release of an al-Jazeera journalist who has been detained unlawfully since August of last year. Kerry said al-Sisi “indicated to me that we should work closely, as we will, and stay tuned to what he is going to try to implement over these next days, weeks and months,” regarding political and democratic reform.
The weeklong tour was put together on short notice to “consult with partners and allies on how the U.S. can support security, stability and the formation of an inclusive government in Iraq, to discuss Middle East security challenges and to attend the NATO foreign ministerial meeting in Brussels,” according to State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
After Cairo, Kerry headed to Jordan to meet with the foreign minister before going to Belgium to participate in a NATO foreign ministers meeting and France to discuss issues in the Middle East with “key regional partners and Gulf allies.”