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Secretary of State John Kerry walked into a chaotic situation in Cairo, Egypt, the first Arab country he's visited since becoming secretary of state. The country is in economic and political turmoil. And today, he tried to encourage the Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, to open up the political process. After their meeting, Secretary Kerry announced the U.S. would release $190 million in aid to Egypt.
As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, Kerry has also been hearing a lot of complaints from opposition figures, who have vowed to boycott upcoming elections.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Kerry is making clear he didn't come to lecture but to consult, to help Egypt, a key Arab partner get through these difficult times. The road to democracy, he says, is a long one.
SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: And I say with both humility and with a great deal of respect that getting there requires a genuine give and take among Egypt's political leaders and civil society groups just as we are continuing to struggle with that in our own country.
KELEMEN: He sat down with a few opposition figures, those who agreed to meet him in a group setting at his hotel in Cairo. Among them Mohamed El Oraby, who briefly served as foreign minister and is now the deputy chairman of the Congress Party.
MOHAMED EL ORABY: We will boycott the upcoming election and we told him that.
KELEMEN: He says Kerry didn't ask them to change their minds but promised to urge President Mohamed Morsi, behind closed doors, to allow a free and fair elections.
ORABY: In the meantime, he was also very strong in order that Egypt should start to rebuild its economy very soon, otherwise it will be a failed state and this might give some, I would say, potential to real chaos in this country.
KELEMEN: Another politician who attended the meeting, Anwar Essmat El Sadat, of the Reform and Development Party, and a nephew of the late Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat, says he listened carefully to Kerry's thoughts about Egypt's fractious politics.
ANWAR ESSMAT EL SADAT: There has to be sort of reconciliation. There has to be a united Egyptian. You know? So we can go through these difficult times we have. So he have been, you know, quite, you know, helpful on listening and also giving his advice.
KELEMEN: Not everyone Kerry invited showed up and some protesters elsewhere in Cairo were reportedly burning pictures of the secretary, accusing him of supporting the Islamist government here. But Kerry seemed calm in the face of this, telling reporters traveling with him that he heard very passionate views from Egyptians who are committed to the democracy they fought for in their revolution.
KERRY: There was a divergency of views in terms of the adamancy. But they all shared a sense that they need to be more a part of the process, more included. And they recognize the economic challenge but they believe there's also a need to fill the promise of democracy. And so do we, we believe that too.
KELEMEN: But he's urging all actors in Egypt - from the Islamist government to secular opposition - to come together to deal with their economic woes first. Kerry says it is, quote, "paramount, essential, urgent that the Egyptian economy get back on its feet."
Egypt's Foreign Minister Mohammed Amr says on this issue his country is counting on the U.S. to help.
MOHAMMED AMR: (Foreign language spoken)
KELEMEN: We expect from friends, particularly the United States, to stand by Egypt during this period, Amr says.
Egypt is already one of the largest recipients of U.S. aid - most of it military. Kerry says he wants to do more to support small businesses and trade. He's trying to encourage the Egyptian government, though, to take the steps needed to reach a deal with the International Monetary Fund. That would bring in $4.8 billion to the country and U.S. officials say it would unlock more U.S. aid.
Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.