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Kerry walks line seeking Egypt's backing while raising rights issues

It was a fine line to walk: urging greater respect for human rights in repression-haunted Egypt while seeking to solidify ties with an important Mideast ally as the region grimly battens down amid a time of tumult.

Sunday’s hours-long visit to Cairo by U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, the highest-level American official to meet with newly inaugurated President Abdel Fattah Sisi, was a study in nuance. On the one hand, Kerry telegraphed concern over the Cairo government’s sweeping crackdown on dissidents of all stripes; on the other, he praised Egypt as a crucial strategic partner and suggested that frozen U.S. military aid would be quick to thaw.

Relations between Cairo and Washington have been fraught during the more than 11 months since Sisi, elected president by a landslide vote last month, supplanted his elected predecessor, Mohamed Morsi. The Egyptian military, with Sisi at its helm, removed Morsi from office last July after huge nationwide protests demanding an end to the Islamist president’s rule.

The Obama administration declined to describe the deposing of Morsi as a coup, which would have triggered an automatic aid cutoff. Nonetheless, U.S. officials expressed growing concern as well-documented human rights violations mounted in the ensuing months, and last year saw a cut of hundreds of millions of dollars in aid.

“For Egypt, this is … a moment of high stakes as well as a moment of great opportunity,” Kerry told a news conference. He said the American administration hoped to see improvements in Egypt’s crippled economy in concert with enhanced rights, including press freedom.

The secretary’s visit came on the eve of what is expected to be the final session in the trial of three journalists from Al Jazeera English, who have been jailed for nearly six months on terror-related charges. The Qatar-based broadcaster says the charges are politically motivated, galvanized by Egypt’s anger over the tiny Gulf emirate’s outspoken support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been formally designated a terrorist organization.

The day before Kerry arrived, an Egyptian court upheld death sentences for 183 alleged supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, accused in connection with a violent riot that left a police officer dead. Mass tribunals and harsh penalties meted out to alleged Brotherhood supporters have drawn sharp criticism from human rights groups and legal advocacy organizations.

The secretary of state described the current climate as a “critical moment of transition” for Egypt. “There are issues of concern,” he said. “But we know how to work at these.”

As Kerry embarked on his visit, U.S. officials cited what they characterized as encouraging signs. Those included the Egyptian government’s self-declared crackdown on sexual violence, in the wake of horrific assaults on women in public spaces including Tahrir Square, epicenter of Egypt’s 2011 revolution that brought down dictator Hosni Mubarak.

Sisi overwhelmingly won last month’s presidential election with promises of an emphasis on security and repairing Egypt’s battered economy.

Despite Washington’s concerns about widespread human rights violations, the firestorm in Iraq has heightened the strategic importance of a stable alliance with Egypt.

The U.S. last year froze hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Egypt, the second-largest recipient of American foreign assistance, but the White House has been moving to restore much of it, though lawmakers have delayed that effort.

From Cairo, Kerry traveled on to Amman, Jordan.

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