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Opposition ducks meeting with Kerry in Egypt

| Saturday, March 2, 2013, 5:42 p.m.
Egyptian activists burn a poster of Secretary of State John Kerry during a protest outside the Egyptian foreign ministry in Cairo on Saturday, March 2. Cairo is the sixth leg of Kerry's first official overseas trip and begins the Middle East portion of his nine-day journey. AP

CAIRO — Well-known political opposition figures stayed away from meetings with visiting Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Saturday, as the U.S. emissary urged Egypt's bickering government and opposition to overcome their differences to establish “a sense of political and economic viability” if the country is to thrive as a democracy.

Kerry encouraged Egypt's Islamist-led government to take politically difficult economic steps that are crucial to securing international loans and outside investment. President Mohamed Morsy, whom Kerry will see Sunday, has been unable to marshal support for such economic measures. His opponents accuse him of reneging on pledges of political and religious openness.

Meanwhile, $450 million in U.S. aid to Egypt has been frozen in Congress and the International Monetary Fund has held off on loans and debt relief worth more than $4 billion. Egypt has been the most important Arab ally of the United States for decades, with ties built largely on Egypt's peace treaty with Israel.

Egypt's foreign currency reserves have fallen by roughly two-thirds since the 2011 revolution that overthrew longtime secular ruler Hosni Mubarak. Morsy's government is trying to slow a run on the U.S. dollar. Unemployment is rampant, and a diesel-fuel crisis has led to waits of several hours at gas stations.

“We expect from friends, and particularly from the United States as a strategic partner, to stand by Egypt in this period, especially on the economic issues,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Amr said after a meeting with Kerry.

The ruling Islamists are at an impasse with secular and leftist opposition parties. The umbrella National Salvation Front has called for a boycott of upcoming parliamentary elections in protest of a national constitution whose strong Islamist stamp also worries some in the United States.

Political liberals and secular parties resent U.S. urging to take part in voting they say will only further divide the country. They say the United States is showing favor to Morsy and Islamists.

Kerry addressed Egypt's intertwined political and economic problems by meeting with opposition political and religious leaders, human rights activists and business leaders. For some, Kerry's visit is an unwelcome public reminder that the United States is Egypt's principal international benefactor, and that the money comes with strings.

National Salvation Front leader Hamdeen Sabbahi refused to meet with Kerry, who had invited a mix of opposition figures to a roundtable meeting at his hotel. After Sabbahi's announcement Friday, fellow NSF leader Mohamed ElBaradei also decided against the meeting. Kerry spoke to him by phone after arriving in Egypt on Saturday.

Opposition figure Amr Moussa declined the group invitation but held a private session with Kerry, out of the view of cameras.

Kerry told reporters later that he had not heard anything from opposition figures to suggest they will change their minds about the vote boycott.

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