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Egypt's Foreign Minister Meets With Pompeo To Discuss Parallel Interests


Egypt's foreign minister made the rounds in Washington today trying to turn a page with the Trump administration. The State Department said last month that it was releasing nearly $200 million of military aid for Egypt. The money had been put on hold over human rights concerns, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: It was all smiles and handshakes at the State Department as Secretary Mike Pompeo greeted his Egyptian counterpart. Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry came out later telling reporters that cooperation between the two countries is great and welcoming the administration's decision to release military aid that had been held up over human rights concerns.


SAMEH SHOUKRY: Egypt is at the forefront in the fight against terrorism. The aid and the military assistance is appreciated and is fundamental and crucial to enable us to continue this battle and to eradicate terrorism and radical ideologies from the region as a whole.

KELEMEN: The State Department says they did discuss the importance of protecting human rights. Egypt is holding tens of thousands of political prisoners. Experts say Egypt's president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, appears to be paving the way to lift term limits so he can stay in power. But Egypt's foreign minister suggested that the talks with Pompeo focused mostly on what he called parallel interests with the U.S. - that is, fighting terrorism.


SHOUKRY: Egypt's abilities as a major player in the region serves well in providing the interests also of the United States.

KELEMEN: It was Pompeo's predecessor, Rex Tillerson, who put a hold on $195 million, a small share of the total U.S. aid to Egypt. His State Department was raising concerns about Egypt's ties with North Korea and a controversial law restricting the work of independent civil society groups. Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment says while the Trump administration remained close to Sissi, it tried to exert a bit of pressure on him to be more responsive to U.S. concerns.

MICHELE DUNNE: Pompeo has reversed that by returning the assistance without getting the conditions met or at least before the conditions are met. He's really given away U.S. leverage in this relationship. And by the way, he's not the first one to do that. President Obama did something similar as well.

KELEMEN: The advocacy group Human Rights First slammed Pompeo last month saying the decision to release aid will only encourage the Egyptian government's repression. Dunne says Egypt has not even resolved the cases against 43 people who worked for international groups that promote democracy.

DUNNE: Members of Congress are still very interested in that issue. And I don't think they are going to drop it even if Secretary Pompeo does.

KELEMEN: According to the State Department, Pompeo did raise the, quote, "vital role of civil society" when he met with his Egyptian counterpart today. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.