US Secretary of State Tillerson visits Egypt at start of Middle East tour

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry met behind closed doors before addressing reporters on Feb 12, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

CAIRO (AFP) - US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson held talks on Monday (Feb 12) in Cairo with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry at the start of a Middle East tour.

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

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

Mr Tillerson's visit comes as Mr 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 from March 26 to 28, Mr 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.

Mr 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, Mr 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.

"On the elections, we support a genuine and a credible electoral process, and we believe should guarantee the right for all citizens to participate freely and fairly," a US State Department official said ahead of Mr Tillerson's visit.

The same official, however, mentioned "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 Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013 and cracked down on his supporters.

Asked to comment about Egypt's human rights record, Mr 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".

Mr Tillerson said he also discussed with Mr Shoukry a joint commitment by the United States and Egypt to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group, adding that their joint efforts are "steadfast".

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

He did not elaborate.

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, Mr Tillerson reiterated that the conflict can only be resolved through a UN-sponsored political framework.

After Cairo, Mr Tillerson is to head to Kuwait to take part in a ministerial meeting of the US-led military coalition that has been battling the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terror 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.

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