By Edward Yeranian
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Egyptian government officials and a number of opposition politicians Saturday on his maiden visit to Cairo as the new top U.S. diplomat. The visit comes amid political turmoil in the run-up to controversial parliamentary elections scheduled to begin in April.
The visit of the new U.S. secretary of state met with some resistance from opposition political leaders, many of whom accuse Washington of taking sides with Egypt’s ruling Muslim Brotherhood group in the country’s ongoing political tug-of-war.
Mohamed ElBaradei, who heads the opposition National Salvation Front, refused to meet with Kerry, as did two other top leaders, Hamdeen Sabahy and Sayed al-Badawi. Other opposition figures, including Amr Moussa and Ayman Nour exchanged views with the secretary of state.
Arab media, quoting the Turkish Anadolu News Agency, reported that Kerry is trying to broker an agreement between Egypt’s rival politicians to form a national unity government. Opposition leaders are demanding that President Mohamed Morsi form such a government, in exchange for their participation in scheduled elections.
At the same time, the head of Egypt’s electoral commission told journalists Saturday that his office is working to prepare lists of judges and government employees to oversee the vote. He said that an eight-day window will begin next Saturday for candidates to register.
Regional issues, including the conflict in Syria, are also at the top of Secretary Kerry’s agenda as he meets with Arab League Secretary General Nabil el-Araby and Egypt’s Foreign Minister, Mohamed Kamel Amr. Meetings with President Morsi and Defense Minister Abdel Fattah Said al-Sissi are expected Sunday.
Kerry’s visit came amid scattered unrest in the country, as opposition protesters in Port Said set fire to a police station Saturday after a police vehicle struck several demonstrators. Egyptian media also reported several casualties following clashes in Mansoura.
Veteran Egyptian editor and publisher Hisham Kassem argues that Kerry’s visit is not likely to break Egypt’s political logjam at a time when Egypt’s political crisis is evolving quickly:
“There is nothing specific that he’s going to be doing here except the meeting with the secretary general of the Arab League over Syria. But, most of the visit will be maybe to help him understand the situation that is not a permanent one and is likely to change in several weeks or so.”
Kassem also does not believe the U.S. is supporting the Islamists against the country’s secular opposition, despite accusations by different opposition groups:
“There is no indicator that the Americans have supported the Islamists in any way. There is no cash that has been transferred. There is no American satellite that has cast a beam on Egyptians heads and made them vote [for the Islamists],” he said. “What can Americans do on the ground to help the Islamists win an electoral victory? Nothing.”
Kassem accuses the secularists of “making unfounded accusations” and playing “amateurish politics.” He argues that U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson “was worried as to be perceived to be supporting the [secularists], so she made a lot of effort to stay on good terms with the Islamists.”