Kerry to Press Egypt on Human Rights Before Gulf, Asian Talks

Secretary of State John Kerry is due in Cairo on Saturday to address strained U.S. ties with Egypt at the start of an eight-day, around-the-world trip focusing on security and economic issues in the Mideast and Southeast Asia.

After talks with Egyptian officials, Kerry plans to meet in Doha, Qatar, with foreign ministers from Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf Arab nations seeking new security assurances after the nuclear deal with rival Iran. While in Doha, he’s scheduled to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to review implementation of the Iran accord and discuss the prospect of involving Iran in peace talks on Syria.

Kerry’s trip picks up his broader diplomatic agenda after months preoccupied by the Iran nuclear negotiations. That’s underscored by the second half of the trip, when he’ll concentrate on trade and security issues in Southeast Asia.

After sparring this week with U.S. lawmakers opposed to the deal, Kerry may welcome changing topics and talking about how to aid Egypt, settle the Syrian civil war, restrain China in the South China Sea and strengthen ties with two vital economic regions.

Though Cairo is only about 250 air miles (400 kilometers) from Jerusalem, Kerry is skipping what used to be an almost mandatory stop in Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is waging a public battle to kill the Iran deal in the U.S. Congress.

State Department spokesman John Kirby played down the significance, saying an Israel stop wasn’t “part of the parameters” for the trip.

A Lot to Cover

“It wasn’t a deliberate decision not to go,” Kirby said July 27, adding that the schedule shows “there’s an awful lot to cover in eight days.”

In Cairo, Kerry and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry plan on Sunday to convene the first U.S.-Egypt “strategic dialogue” since December 2009. That was before the political turmoil and strained relations that followed the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, the election of a Muslim Brotherhood president, a 2013 coup led by then-army chief Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, and Sisi’s subsequent election as president and crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and civil liberties.

“U.S.-Egypt ties right now are mostly about trying to slog through on a range of thorny issues amidst a difficult and worrying situation in Egypt and chaos in the region,” according to Amy Hawthorne, a senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

‘Dynamic Partnership’

While the Egyptian government said the meeting reflects a “dynamic partnership,” Hawthorne and ten other Mideast analysts wrote Kerry that the government in Cairo will try to use the talks “as a sign of U.S. endorsement of its current repressive policies,” which they said are fueling a rise in militancy in the most populous Arab nation.

A bipartisan group of senators urged Kerry in a letter to make political reform, human rights and fundamental freedoms a “central element” of the talks. Their concerns are a warning to Egypt, which relies on Congress to approve $1.3 billion a year in military aid.

In a signal that he’ll press such issues, Kerry is including the State Department’s top human rights official, Assistant Secretary Tom Malinowski, in his delegation.

The delegation also will seek to encourage Egyptian economic reforms and U.S. foreign direct investment. The pace of economic reforms has slowed in recent months, and the Egypt’s benchmark stock index has fallen almost 20 percent after hitting a seven-year high in February.

Southeast Asia

After meeting with Gulf Cooperation Council members in Doha, Kerry goes to Singapore, where he’ll speak on U.S. trade and other economic interests in the region, followed by the ASEAN meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Kerry’s trip concludes Aug. 6 to Aug. 8 in Hanoi, where the decorated Vietnam War veteran will mark the 20th anniversary of U.S.-Vietnam diplomatic relations. Then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher raised the U.S. flag at the American Embassy on August 6, 1995, two decades after the Vietnam War ended.

Since then, two-way trade has grown to $36.3 billion last year from less than $500 million, according to U.S. Census Department data, and Vietnam now looks to the U.S. for help restraining China.