by Dan De Luce
by Dan De Luce
CAIRO, April 24, 2013 (AFP)
US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel urged Egypt’s Islamist-led government on 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, General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, and President Mohamed Morsi.
Egypt has been a cornerstone of regional US 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 US support for political and democratic reforms in Egypt,” a senior US defence official told reporters travelling 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 Morsi, 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 Morsi’s government over allegations the Islamists have stifled opposition figures and media.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, who promised to unlock aid to Cairo a visit in March, said this month that Washington had “real concerns” about Egypt’s course.
But US 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 defence, and have his counterpart who we can talk to at any time,” a senior defence official told reporters last week before Hagel’s trip.
“Despite changes in the Egyptian military and political system, that’s been constant.”
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 always been seen as a way of ensuring Cairo abide 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.
“Al-Sissi said that Egypt understands and takes responsibility for security throughout the entire country, including Egypt’s border,” the US defence 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 US and Egyptian defence chiefs since former defence 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.
But Syria’s raging civil war has topped the agenda through much of Hagel’s trip, amid renewed fears Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has turned to deadly chemical weapons in its fight with rebel forces.
An Israeli general in military intelligence said Tuesday that the Damascus regime had employed chemical agents, most likely sarin, more than once in battles in recent months.
The United States has said any use or transfer of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” and possibly trigger military action.
But Hagel’s spokesman said the US government was still not convinced chemical agents had been employed and the claims were being reviewed.
Hagel began his tour with a three-day visit to Israel and he stopped in Jordan before flying to Riyadh on Tuesday.
After Egypt, Hagel heads to the United Arab Emirates, which has signed up to buy nearly $5 billion worth of US-made F-16 fighter jets as well as sophisticated missiles that can hit targets at a long-range.