U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta arrived in Cairo to reaffirm U.S. support for Egypt's democratic transition. (Gianluigi Guercia / AFP via Getty Images)
CAIRO — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reaffirmed U.S. support for Egypt’s democratic transition and stability during a lightning visit to Cairo on July 31 as part of a regional tour.
Panetta met Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), as well as newly elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi.
“My message today was consistent with our previous conversations — the U.S. strongly supports an orderly, peaceful and legitimate transition to a democratic system of government here in Egypt,” Panetta told reporters.
“I believe (Tantawi) was critical in overseeing a peaceful, free and fair election. I commended him and the SCAF and their positive role in the process,” he said.
Morsi and the SCAF — which ruled Egypt after a popular uprising toppled Hosni Mubarak in February last year — have been locked in a power struggle since the Islamist took office in June.
But Panetta said he was “pleased to hear Field Marshal Tantawi’s firm commitment to the transition to full civilian rule.”
For the first time since the ouster of the monarchy in 1952, Egypt’s head of state has not emerged from military ranks.
Panetta stressed “the importance of promoting a broad-based coalition that is critical to the success of the government here in Egypt” “I was convinced that President Morsi is his own man and that he is the president of all the Egyptian people and that he’s truly committed to implement democratic reforms here in Egypt,” Panetta said.
The election of Morsi, who emerged from the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, had raised fears, particularly among secularists and Christians, that personal freedoms would be stifled.
But Morsi has repeatedly vowed to be a president “for all Egyptians.”
“It’s my view that President Morsi and Field Marshal Tantawi have a very good working relationship and are working together for the same ends,” Panetta said.
“It’s clear that Egypt, following the revolution, is committed to putting in place a democratic government and a democratic government that represents all of the constituencies and interests here in Egypt.”
The Pentagon chief stressed the need for strong military cooperation between the U.S. and its longtime Middle East ally.
“There is continuing support for a strong military to military relationship, because security for Egypt is important for the stability of this country as it implements democratic transition,” Panetta said.
“We have a history of working together in a cooperative way with the Egyptian military leadership we will continue to provide with whatever aid or assistance we can to try to help them.”
Egypt receives $1.3 billion annually in military aid.
Washington insists that the new leadership respect peace accords concluded with Israel, and has expressed concern over security problems in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
Israel has repeatedly called on Cairo to improve security in the Sinai, charging that growing lawlessness since Mubarak’s overthrow has allowed militants to smuggle arms into the neighboring Gaza Strip and carry out attacks across the border into the Jewish state.
Earlier, Morsi wrote to his Israeli counterpart Shimon Peres pledging to help revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the Israeli president’s office said.
“I am looking forward to exerting our best efforts to get the Middle East peace process back to its right track in order to achieve security and stability for all peoples of the region, including the Israeli people,” it quoted Morsi as writing.
Panetta’s Middle East tour will also take him to Israel and Jordan.