US envoy Tillerson in Egypt at start of Mideast tour

Speaking about presidential polls, Tillerson said Washington supports "a transparent credible electoral process"

Afp February 13, 2018
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) meeting with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Cairo PHOTO" AFP

CAIRO: US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson held talks Monday in Cairo with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry at the start of a Middle East tour.

Tillerson landed in Cairo late Sunday and had dinner with Shoukry.

On Monday morning, the two foreign ministers met behind closed doors and then addressed reporters, and later Tillerson had talks with Sisi before heading to the airport on route to Kuwait.

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Tillerson's visit comes as Sisi, who has been president since 2014, looks set to be re-elected next month in polls in which he will face a single opponent.

All serious potential presidential contenders have either been jailed or withdrew, with some claiming the entire process was not conducive to free elections.

Speaking about the polls due to be held March 26-28, Tillerson told reporters that Washington supports "a transparent credible electoral process".

"We have always advocated free, transparent, fair elections, not just in Egypt but in any country," he said in response to a question on whether the elections would be considered credible, free or fair.

Tillerson's trip to Cairo comes after Vice President Mike Pence visited last month to discuss security in the region and the future of US aid to Egypt.

However, Tillerson did not respond to a question on whether the US would freeze part of its military aid to Egypt if the elections were deemed not credible.

"The issue of withholding more assistance if things don't go right was not raised," a senior State Department official said later, insisting however that "there are some areas of progress we want to see".

"We have a strong relationship, it's deep, we talk about a lot of things, including things where we have concerns and how we can have those concerns dressed," the official said.

Ahead of the trip a State Department official pointed to "concerns about human rights and civil society" as "a topic of continuing conversation with the Egyptians."

"We have noted our concerns about the reports that Egypt's prosecutor general has launched an investigation into opposition figures ahead of the" vote, he added.

Right groups accuse the Egyptian government of arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances of dissidents, which spiked after the military overthrew president Mohamed Morsi in 2013 and cracked down on his supporters.

Asked to comment about Egypt's human rights record, Shoukry told reporters they should see for themselves "the nature of the current situation in Egypt" and "how the Egyptian people view this administration and its efforts to strengthen and protect human rights and whether there is this sense of restriction that you allude to."

Tillerson said he also discussed with Shoukry a joint commitment by the United States and Egypt to defeat the Islamic State group, adding that their joint efforts are 'steadfast.'

They also discussed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and Tillerson said the US administration "remains committed to achieving a peace agreement between Israelis and the Palestinians".

He did not elaborate.

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US President Donald Trump announced in December his decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and said he would move the US embassy there from Tel Aviv, sparking fury in Arab and Muslim countries.

On Syria's nearly seven-year war, Tillerson reiterated that the conflict can only be resolved through a UN-sponsored political framework.

After Cairo, Tillerson jetted in to Kuwait to take part in a ministerial meeting of the US-led military coalition that has been battling the Islamic State group in Iraq and neighbouring Syria.

He is also set to visit Jordan to meet King Abdullah II and Lebanon to meet President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

He is then set to head to Turkey for discussions with Washington's NATO ally including on the conflict in Syria.