By Elise Labott
On Saturday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in Egypt, the first U.S. Cabinet official to meet with newly elected president Mohamed Morsy. In some ways, the timing couldn't be worse for Clinton's visit.
Her trip will kick off what is expected to be a steady stream of high-level officials to visit Cairo in coming months, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta within the next few weeks and culminating with a possible meeting with President Obama on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in September.
Egypt is in the throws of domestic political chaos and looking inward. The country's Islamist president is engaged in a tug of war with the Egyptian military. President Morsy doesn't have his own cabinet in place and there is no parliament. With no clarity or direction of what comes next or what the fundamental aspects of his government's own working relationship will be, how could he possibly be expected to articulate what the nature of the relationship with Washington might be now that he is president?
Clinton aides realize it is premature for substantive discussions on new initiatives or U.S. assistance. But they say the secretary of state wanted to visit Cairo early after Morsy's swearing-in to show the Obama administration wants to help the new government improve Egypt's fragile economy. If America is to have a better relationship with Egypt, she knows this is how the U.S. can contribute most. In Washington's view, democracy is supported by people in jobs with a growing sense of their future.
Aides say Clinton will be very much in listening mode about what Morsy's priorities are and what the United States can do to help. Having supported a democratic transition in Egypt, the United States is prepared to work with the Morsy government to help it succeed.
Clinton also will be encouraging Egyptians to keep moving forward on democratic reforms. This week in Asia, she sent a message to Egypt's leaders to talk to one another and settle their differences for the good of the people, saying both the president and the military needed to work together to avoid derailing Egypt's democratic transition.
During her visit, the secretary is also expected to raise the delicate issues of women's rights and equality for the country's Coptic Christians, who have faced persecution in the past. That doesn't mean finger wagging, however. Officials say Clinton will simply endorse statements the president has made on all of these issues, which the United States sees as positive. In effect, she will be trying to put President Morsy on the hook to implement the commitments he himself has made.
The peace treaty with Israel and the situation in the Sinai on the border between the two countries will also be high on the agenda. Both the United States and Israel have been concerned about recent cross-border attacks into Israel that have heightened tensions between both countries. An explosive mix of trafficking of weapons and people across the border from Sudan, coupled with a variety of terrorist groups moving increasingly freely in the area, has Israeli officials walking on eggshells.
Israel is worried one deadly terrorist attack across the border could force it to retaliate in Egyptian territory, jeopardizing the decades-long peace treaty between the two countries. Although U.S. and Israeli officials believe Egyptian military leaders know the stakes and are not interested in trouble on the border, they seem to be too preoccupied with the country's domestic problems to pay adequate attention to the Sinai.
Here Clinton must tread carefully, as Egypt is very sensitive about the Sinai issue, which it believes is a matter of its sovereignty. Clinton will urge Egyptian leaders to control the border, not just for its own good, but for the good of the region. Again, Clinton can point to statements by President Morsy about his commitment to peace and stability in the region to reinforce U.S. expectations.
From Egypt, Clinton will travel to Israel, where officials will be looking to see what, if any, messages the secretary will bring from Egypt's new leadership about how it views the future of its relationship with its neighbor.
While she will certainly share her impressions, aides say shuttle diplomacy is not on Clinton's agenda. First and foremost the United States must engage the new Egyptian government and establish its own relationship before it can return to the role of peacemaker that these two countries have relied upon it for in the past.