U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy to discuss a wide-range of issues Sunday, from the crisis in Syria and Iran's nuclear ambitions to the Egyptian economy and human rights.
The two-hour session came a day after Kerry addressed a round-table discussion with Egyptian business leaders in Cairo, and went straight to the point. "It is paramount, essential, urgent," he said, "that the Egyptian economy get stronger, that it get back on its feet."
Kerry is visiting Egypt at a critical juncture. Egypt has been engulfed in political unrest for months, ahead of parliamentary elections in April. Political divisions are preventing crucial economic reform.
The country desperately needs loans from the International Monetary Fund. U.S. officials say if it can secure those loans that would unlock money from the United States, the European Union, Arab states and from private sources.
But, to get those loans the Egyptian government must carry out painful reforms, including raising taxes and reducing energy subsidies. While the government and the opposition are fighting, reform is impossible.
Speaking to reporters in Egypt on Saturday Kerry said "there must be a willingness on all sides" in Egypt to make "meaningful compromises on the issues that matter most to all of the Egyptian people."
Egyptians, Kerry said, must stay focused on economic and political opportunities to succeed in forging a successful democracy. The United States wants to help all it can, but not to interfere in Egypt's affairs.
"We come here as friends," Kerry said, "not as proponents of a particular group, person or ideology."
During Kerry's Cairo visit -- a stop on his first overseas trip since he became secretary of state -- the Obama administration has been stressing the importance of political consensus, an elusive goal at present. Morsy, a longtime top figure in the Muslim Brotherhood before he became president, is unpopular among a large segment of the population.
Kerry met with Amre Moussa and Nabil El Araby, the former and current heads of the Arab League, as well as with opposition leaders Saturday, but state news said opposition figures Hamdeen Sabahy and Mohamed ElBaradei decided not to meet with him. A senior State Department official later said Kerry spoke with ElBaradei by phone.
Some members of the oppositon are threatening to boycott the parliamentary elections. Kerry praised their "extraordinary passion" but did not directly urge them to participate in the elections.
Kerry said that there needs to be a sense of security and an agreement with the International Monetary Fund to help jump-start the economy.. He said he spoke with the leaders of Great Britain, France, Germany and Turkey and all want to be helpful "but all of them believe Egypt must make some fundamental economic choices."
Necessary reforms for Egypt include increasing tax revenue and reducing energy subsidies, U.S. officials say. But in order to carry out the kind of reforms required for getting International Monetary Fund money, the official says, "there has to be a basic political agreement among all of the various players in Egypt."
At his press conference, Kerry stressed "vibrant democracy" stimulates business and wide political participation. As for the issue of human rights, a major concern in Egypt, he said "the best way to ensure human rights" in the country is through the "broadest possible" political and economic participation.
Kerry said that in his meeting scheduled fo Sunday with Morsy he will broach "very specific ways" in which President Obama wants to help Egypt, including economic assistance, support for private business, increasing Egyptian exports to the United States and investing in education.
Kerry told reporters he appreciated Morsy's role in helping bring about a cease-fire between Israel and militants in Gaza in fighting there last year.
Before Kerry met with Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr, a small protest broke out in Cairo.
Dozens of people in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs burned pictures of Kerry, according to the state-run MENA news outlet.
Other protesters laid on the ground at the front gate of the ministry. Some formed a human chain on a bridge leading to the ministry and held banners rejecting Kerry's visit to Egypt.
The demonstration caused congestion with many cars backed up on Corniche Nile Road. The protesters chanted anti-U.S. and anti-Israel slogans.