Kerry presses for Egypt political consensus

CAIRO (AFP) - US Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday urged bickering Egyptian political leaders to forge a consensus to pave the way for aid that could help lift their country out of its deep economic crisis.

"There must be a willingness on all sides to make meaningful compromises on the issues that matter most to the Egyptian people," Mr Kerry told reporters after initial talks with Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr in Cairo.

"We do believe that in this moment of economic challenge that it is important for the Egyptian people to come together around the economic choices and to find some common ground in making those choices." Mr Kerry's visit comes with Egypt deeply divided between President Mohamed Mursi's mainly Islamist allies and a wide-ranging opposition that accuses Mr Mursi of failing to address the country's economic needs and political concerns.

Mr Kerry said he would discuss with Morsi on Sunday ways in which the United States could help Egypt recover from its economic crisis.

"And I emphasise again, as strongly as I can, we're not here to interfere, I'm here to listen," Mr Kerry said.

Meeting some of Egypt's business leaders, the US top diplomat stressed the importance of a US$4.8-billion (S$5.9 billion) IMF loan, which is partly conditioned on a measure of agreement between the nation's divided factions.

"It is paramount, essential, urgent that the Egyptian economy gets stronger, that it gets back on its feet," he said. "It is clear to us that the IMF arrangement needs to be reached. So we need to give the marketplace the confidence."

Mr Kerry said Washington was prepared to help Egypt, which has seen its foreign currency reserve slide to a critical level and the Egyptian pound lose around eight percent against the dollar.

He said US President Barack Obama would like to be engaged in supporting the country including through "economic assistance, support for private businesses, growing Egyptian exports to us." On his first tour as secretary of state, Mr Kerry met British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan before coming to Cairo.

"All of them are prepared to be helpful but all of them believe that Egypt needs to make some fundamental economic choices," he said.

As Kerry arrived from Turkey, protesters torched a police station in the canal city of Port Said which is entering a third week of civil unrest, reflecting the size of the task in Egypt which has been rocked by months of violence.

The official Mena news agency said protesters also stormed a police building in the Nile Delta city of Mansura, where overnight clashes left one person dead and dozens injured.

Mr Kerry began the Cairo leg of his tour by meeting Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi, before evening talks with Amr.

Outside the foreign ministry, dozens of protesters burned pictures of Kerry as they chanted against perceived US support for Mr Mursi.

But Mr Kerry insisted the United States was not biased towards any party.

"I make it particularly clear today on behalf of President Obama and the American people that we come here as friends for the Egyptian people, not for one government, or one person or one party or one ideology but for the Egyptian people." The opposition criticises Washington for urging it to reconsider a boycott of upcoming parliamentary elections.

Earlier, Mr Kerry met former Arab League chief Amr Mussa and spoke with Mohamed ElBaradei by telephone. ElBaradei and opposition figure Hamdeen Sabahi had refused to meet him in person.

All three are leading figures in the National Salvation Front, a coalition of liberal and leftist parties opposed to Mr Mursi, which has announced a boycott of elections that begin next month.

Egypt has been deeply divided since Morsi, elected in June as part of the transition that followed Hosni Mubarak's ouster in early 2011, issued a decree in November expanding his powers and paving the way for the adoption of an Islamist-drafted constitution.

Mr Mursi rescinded the decree under intense pressure, but the political turmoil has fuelled weeks of unrest and clashes that have left dozens dead.

The president has called for staggered parliamentary elections to start on April 22. The NSF said it would boycott the polls, expressing doubts over their transparency.

The opposition, less organised than the Muslim Brotherhood, insists that the president appoint a new government before the election. The presidency says the new parliament should have the right to appoint the cabinet.

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