By Declan Walsh – The New York Times
CAIRO — Unusually for America’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson has kept a cool relationship with Egypt.
Mr. Tillerson did not visit Egypt, a decades-old ally, during his first year in office. And his decision last August to cut or freeze $291 million in aid, to protest President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s harsh policies and ties with North Korea, shocked Egyptian officials.
Mr. Tillerson’s approach contrasted sharply with that of his predecessor, John F. Kerry, and with Mr. Tillerson’s boss, President Trump, who has called Mr. Sisi a “fantastic guy,” going as far as to compliment his choice of shoes at a meeting in Saudi Arabia last year.
So when Mr. Tillerson finally made it to Cairo on Monday, at the start of a five-country tour of the Middle East, he appeared keen to make amends. He expressed staunch support for Mr. Sisi’s latest counterterrorism drive in Sinai, and avoided even mild criticism of next month’s presidential election — widely seen as charade to reinstall Mr. Sisi for another four years in power.
The United States was committed to free and fair elections, “not just for Egypt but for any country,” Mr. Tillerson said, but he declined to comment on a fierce wave of repression that has jailed, sidelined or threatened Mr. Sisi’s rivals in the past month.
Standing beside Mr. Tillerson, Egypt’s foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, said Egypt’s critics were out of touch, and insisted his country had a vibrant news media with a multitude of television stations — even though on Sunday his government banned transmissions of the Arab version of the American comedy show “Saturday Night Live,” the latest step in a broad crackdown in which journalists have been arrested and about 500 websites blocked.
Later, Mr. Tillerson held private talks with Mr. Sisi at the presidential palace. A State Department spokeswoman said they focused on their shared fight against terrorism and enhancing economic and commercial ties between the United States and Egypt.
The conciliatory tone was in keeping with the broad theme of Mr. Tillerson’s trip to the Middle East, which is focused on stabilizing the region after the expected defeat of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Mr. Sisi launched a sweeping military operation against the Islamic State last Friday, spurred by a devastating attack on a mosque last November that killed 311 people and, most likely, by the approach of next month’s election.
On Sunday, a video purportedly from the Islamic State called on its fighters to carry out attacks during the election and warned Egyptians to stay away from the polls.
Away from the cameras, American officials say, Mr. Tillerson remains dissatisfied with Egypt on several areas that cooled the relationship in the past year. There were signs on Monday that those issues had not gone away.
First among them is Egypt’s relationship with North Korea, which has grown into a significant point of contention. North Korea has a large embassy in Cairo, which American officials say is used to illegally sell arms and evade international sanctions. American demands that Egypt downgrade its ties to North Korea were a major factor in Mr. Tillerson’s decision last August to slash $96 million in military aid to Egypt, and to freeze a further $195 million.
On Monday, Mr. Shoukry acknowledged that North Korea had come up, but insisted that Egypt’s relationship with North Korea was “limited to representation, and there is almost no existing economic or other areas of cooperation.” Mr. Tillerson did not comment on North Korea ties.
American officials say that Mr. Tillerson is still concerned over Mr. Sisi’s treatment of civil society and aid groups, which since May have been subject to a draconian new law that some fear will force them to close. With Mr. Sisi, Mr. Tillerson said they discussed “the importance of the protection and promotion of human rights and the vital role of civil society in Egypt.”
American officials also are concerned about the resurrection of a court case involving 43 Western and Arab democracy workers who were convicted, many of them in absentia, in 2013.
The politically charged prosecution, which targeted employees of the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, as well as other groups, elicited sharp criticism of Egypt in Congress. A court appeal, scheduled for April, has reinvigorated American efforts to have their convictions overturned.
Mr. Tillerson was continuing to Kuwait late Monday, for a conference on the reconstruction of Iraq, before stops in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. But his trip has been overshadowed by growing tensions in the region since a military clash between Iran and Israel in Syria over the weekend.
Photo Credit: Egypt State Information Service