US Secretary of State John Kerry was in Cairo on Sunday, pressing for reforms during the highest-level American visit to Egypt since the ouster of the country's first democratically elected president.
The Egyptian military's removal of Mohammed Morsi in July followed by a harsh crackdown on his protesting supporters led the US to suspend hundreds of millions of dollars in aid.
At a joint news conference following a meeting with Egyptian foreign minister Nabil Fahmy, Kerry said that the suspension of aid to Egypt is not a punishment but a legal requirement after the Egyptian military in July toppled the democratically elected government.
Kerry said the topic was mentioned only briefly in his meeting with Fahmy and that he believed Egyptian authorities understood that rationale.
While acknowledging that Egypt had faced "difficult challenges" and "turbulent years," including in its relationship with the US, he urged Egyptians to continue their "march to democracy." The US is a friend and partner to the Egyptian people and wants to contribute to the country's success, Kerry said.
Fahmy said Kerry's comments and the roadmap Egypt's military chief General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi laid out following the military coup indicate that "we are all pursuing a resumption of normal relations."
The roadmap includes amending the Islamist-tilted constitution adopted under Morsi last year, holding a national referendum before the end of the year and parliamentary and presidential elections by the spring of 2014.
The State Department apparently expected a frosty reception for Kerry, especially with tensions running high on the eve of Monday's scheduled start of Morsi's trial on charges of inciting murder.
The department refused to confirm Kerry's visit until he landed in Cairo, even though Egypt's official news agency reported the impending trip three days earlier.
The secrecy was unprecedented for a secretary of state's travel to Egypt, for decades one of the closest US allies in the Arab world, and highlighted the deep rifts today between Washington and Cairo.
Kerry last was in Egypt in March, when he urged Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-backed government to enact sweeping economic reforms and govern in a more inclusive manner.
Those calls went unheeded. Simmering public unhappiness with his rule boiled over when the powerful Egyptian military deposed Morsi on July 3 and established an interim government.
The Obama administration was caught in a bind over whether to condemn the ouster as a coup and cut the annual USD 1.3 billion in US military assistance that such a determination would legally require.