by Mahmoud Fouly
CAIRO, June 22 (Xinhua) -- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry held talks on Sunday with Egypt's newly-elected President Abdel- Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo in the first visit of a high-profile U.S. official to Egypt since Sisi took office earlier this month.
The visit is seen by Egyptian experts as a sign of warming relations between Washington and Cairo after months of tensions since the removal of the first-democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi by the military last July following mass protests against his one-year rule and his currently-blacklisted Muslim Brotherhood group.
"This is a beginning of a gradual improvement of ties between Egypt and the United States that considers Cairo a key player in the turmoil-stricken region," said Abdel-Raouf al-Reedy, former Egyptian ambassador to the United States and head of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs.
During his visit to Cairo, Kerry told reporters that "this is a critical moment of transition in Egypt" and that "the United States is very interested in working closely with President Sisi and his cabinet and Egypt to make this transition as rapidly and smoothly as possible."
The visit is part of Kerry's tour in the region when the crisis in Iraq worsens. During his tour, the chief U.S. diplomat is expected to visit the restive country, where armed insurgents have recently seized a number of Iraqi cities.
"The United States is aware that Egypt is a central regional country amid tension in the Gulf region and turmoil in Syria, Libya and Iraq," Reedy told Xinhua.
He added that the United States is concerned that the recent " dangerous developments" in Iraq might lead to a regional war that would harm its interests in the Middle East and its number one ally there, Israel.
The U.S. administration has recently decided to release some of its partially-suspended annual aid to Egypt by delivering 10 Apache attack helicopters and 650 million U.S. dollars. After Morsi's removal, the annual military aid Egypt from the United States was suspended.
The former ambassador told Xinhua that the restoration of ties "will remain gradual without leaps," noting that the partial release of U.S. aid to Egypt and Kerry's talks with Sisi represent "an important stage" in the U.S.-Egyptian relations.
The visit comes one day after Egypt confirmed the controversial mass death sentences of 183 Morsi supporters and Brotherhood members, including the group's leader Mohamed Badei. Washington has always voiced concern about the security crackdown on Morsi loyalists that have left about 1,000 dead and thousands more detained in Egypt's reportedly overcrowded prisons over the past 10 months.
"I emphasized also our strong support for upholding the universal rights and freedoms of all Egyptians including freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association," Kerry told reporters after meeting with Sisi, stressing on "the essential role of a vibrant civil society, free press, rule of law and due process in a democracy."
The former Egyptian diplomat said that improving relations with Egypt does not mean that the United States is giving up on the Muslim Brotherhood, yet he said that the U.S. support for the group is "eroding."
Political science professor Gamal Salama said that Kerry's visit is mainly concerned with improving its ties with Egypt's government, as the U.S. concerns about rights and freedoms were used as "pressure."
"The position of the United States on the developments in Egypt has been reluctant since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in early 2011 until today," Salama told Xinhua, adding that the world power is now attempting to reassess the situation in light of recent developments.
"The United States is a big power that wants to preserve its interests in the region and so it seeks to contain the situation with Egypt," the professor explained.
With regards to the Brotherhood, Salama expressed belief that the United States is unlikely to give up on the group but it will continue improving ties with the new leadership.
"The United States had good ties with Mubarak and they still maintained good relations with the Brotherhood then," Salama illustrated, stressing that the United States is not a "unilateral " state.