EU offers Egypt's Morsi $1.29 bln aid, better trade

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi gestures while speaking during a media conference at EU headquarters in Brussels on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

BRUSSELS: EU leaders offered Egypt more than a billion euros in aid and better trade terms as President Mohamed Morsi flew in for his first visit to Europe pledging to support democratic values and freedoms.

The lightning trip, followed by a visit to Rome, came amid violent anti-US protests over a film deemed insulting to Islam that led to the killing of four US officials in the Libyan city of Benghazi.

"Attacks such as these cannot be justified, regardless of their motivation," said European Union president Herman Van Rompuy.

"All leaders have to assume their responsibilities in building security and tolerance," he added with Morsi at his side following a furious anti-US protest at Washington's embassy in Cairo.

Welcoming the first ever visit by an Egyptian leader to Brussels, and Morsi's first foray into Europe, Van Rompuy pledged the EU would stand by Egypt's "side as a friend, a neighbour, a partner."

Earlier, praising Morsi for his "unwavering commitment" to democratic values and fundamental freedoms, European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso vowed "to work with Egypt's democratically elected authorities to build a democratic, free, open, prosperous Egypt."

The EU was making available 449 million euros to Egypt for 2011-2013 but was "willing to do much more," Barroso said.

He offered 500 million euros (640 million) extra in macro financial assistance -- on condition Egypt clinches a $4.8 billion IMF loan -- and budget support of 150-200 million euros for the country's economic recovery.

The head of the EU executive also said the world's largest trading bloc, with its half a billion people, was ready to start negotiations with Cairo on a "deep" free trade deal.

More details on economic cooperation between Egypt and the EU will be worked out in November by a joint "task force".

The 27-nation bloc is already Egypt's top trading partner, accounting for a third of its foreign trade, but Barroso said there was "still a great potential to explore."

Egypt's future is seen as vital in Brussels, keen on strengthening economic ties with the Arab Spring nations while shoring up developed democracies in its backyard in the interest of Europe's security.

After being accused of having backed dictatorial regimes on its southern flank in the past, the EU last year vowed to dole out aid in line with democratic progress, a policy known as "more for more".

Success for Egypt "will have positive repercussions on the region as a whole," Van Rompuy said.

Morsi meanwhile slammed "attacks" on Islam but also condemned violence including the Tuesday attack in Benghazi.

"We Egyptians reject any kind of assault or insult against our Prophet," he said. "(But) it is our duty to protect our guests and visitors from abroad."

He also pledged to continue upholding democratic values and freedoms, several times stressing his commitment to respect the equality of all Egyptians, with no distinction between Muslims and Copts, and equal rights for women.

"We will move forward from corruption and dictatorship to a new phase of freedom for all, of democracy for all, of guaranteeing rights for all Egyptians," Morsi said.

"Women more and more enjoy more freedoms," he added. "These human rights and these values are very important to us."

A senior EU official said Europe too would do all it could to assist Cairo in recovering national assets plundered by corrupt elites during the Hosni Mubarak era, estimated at anywhere up to $10 billion.

"We need, as the EU, to help speed up this process as cash is needed," said the official, who asked not to be named. "My feeling is that it's often less than countries expect to find."





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