CAIRO: U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel urged Egypt’s Islamist-led government Wednesday to press ahead with reforms in a visit to Cairo designed to bolster America’s alliances in a region swept by upheaval.
Hagel, who arrived in Cairo following a visit to Saudi Arabia, met with his Egyptian counterpart, Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, and President Mohammad Mursi.
Egypt has been a cornerstone of regional U.S. influence since its 1979 peace treaty with Israel, but Washington has contended with a more head-strong government in Cairo after the 2011 overthrow of veteran president Hosni Mubarak.
In his meeting with Sissi, Hagel “expressed U.S. support for political and democratic reforms in Egypt,” a senior U.S. defense official told reporters traveling with the secretary.
Hagel “encouraged them to continue for several reasons, to include stability in Egypt and the region. He commended the Egyptian military for the responsible role it has played during a difficult period in the country,” the official added.
Hagel later met Mursi, elected in June as the country’s first Islamist and civilian president, before he was due to leave for the United Arab Emirates.
Washington has increasingly adopted a critical tone towards Mursi’s government over allegations the Islamists have stifled opposition figures and media.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who promised to unlock aid to Cairo during a visit in March, said this month that Washington had “real concerns” about Egypt’s course.
But U.S. officials say security ties cultivated over decades between the two countries have survived the revolution and that America’s military leaders still have a direct channel to Egypt’s powerful top brass.
“We can pick up the phone, the secretary of defense, and have his counterpart, who we can talk to at any time,” a senior defense official told reporters last week before Hagel’s trip.
“Despite changes in the Egyptian military and political system, that’s been constant.”
Even in the post-Mubarak era, the United States still provides more than a billion dollars in annual military aid to Egypt. The huge funding package has previously been seen as a way of ensuring Cairo abides by the 1979 peace accords with Israel.
Hagel and his counterparts were also expected to discuss relations with Israel, deteriorating security in the Sinai Peninsula and Egypt’s domestic politics, officials said.
“Sissi said Egypt understands and takes responsibility for security throughout the entire country, including Egypt’s border,” the U.S. defense official told reporters after the meeting.
Tensions rose after two rockets were fired from the Sinai at the Israeli Red Sea resort of Eilat last week, with a Salafi jihadist group claiming responsibility.
Israel has complained to Egypt over the incident and threatened to take military action if the attacks continue.
Hagel’s visit coincided with political crises and power struggles in Egypt, including a haemorrhaging economy and threats by the opposition to boycott parliamentary elections.
Hagel’s trip marked the first meeting between U.S. and Egyptian defense chiefs since former defense secretary Leon Panetta paid a visit last August.
The new Pentagon chief, who took office two months ago, came to the Middle East touting an elaborate arms deal with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates designed to bolster America’s partners as a counterweight to Iran.
Hagel began his tour with a three-day visit to Israel, then stopping in Jordan before flying to Riyadh Tuesday.
After Egypt, Hagel heads to the United Arab Emirates, which has signed up to buy nearly $5 billion worth of U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets as well as sophisticated missiles that can hit targets at a long-range.