New Egyptian president promises Panetta democracy and partnership

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CAIRO — Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Tuesday that Egypt’s new president and its military chief have reassured him that they will steer the country to full democracy.

“It’s clear that Egypt, following the revolution, is committed to putting into place a democratic government,” Mr. Panetta told reporters after meetings in Cairo with President Mohamed Morsi and Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.

It was Mr. Panetta’s first encounter with Mr. Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate who assumed the presidency in June. Mr. Panetta said it was clear to him that Mr. Morsi is “his own man.”

Mr. Panetta said both Egyptian leaders told him that they would continue their country’s cooperation with the United States in fighting the al Qaeda terrorist network.

The defense chief arrived in Cairo on Tuesday seeking assurance that the country would remain a military partner at a time of political tumult in the Middle East and growing worry about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Mr. Panetta traveled to Egypt on the heels of a visit by Secretary of State Hillary Rodman Clinton, who was the first member of President Obama’s Cabinet to meet with Mr. Morsi since his election.

Mrs. Clinton said in Washington on Monday that the jury is out on whether Egypt’s Islamist political parties will equally represent non-Muslims. She said the Obama administration’s relationship with Mr. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood party would depend on how they respect the rights of women as well as Coptic Christians and other minorities.

Speaking to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Mrs. Clinton said Egypt is still grappling with the challenge of religious liberty as it seeks to establish a democracy after decades of dictatorship.

In his talks Tuesday, Mr. Panetta stressed U.S. support for the completion of a transition to civilian democratic rule, and to gauge Mr. Morsi’s interest in maintaining long-standing U.S.-Egyptian military relations.

Mr. Panetta was last in Cairo in October, after the fall of longtime autocratic President Hosni Mubarak but prior to Mr. Morsi’s election.

After his Cairo meetings, Mr. Panetta was headed to Israel for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

A potential Israeli military attack on Iran’s nuclear sites was expected to be a major topic, but Mr. Panetta also planned to discuss with the Israelis the progress they are making on building an air defense system, known as the Iron Dome, which is designed to shoot down short-range rockets and artillery shells.

Asked about news reports in Israel that Mr. Panetta plans to share U.S. plans for potential war with Iran when he meets with Israeli leaders Wednesday in Jerusalem, the defense secretary said that is a “wrong characterization” of what he will discuss.

He said his talks in Jerusalem will be “more about what is the threat we are confronting” in Iran’s nuclear program and sharing intelligence information.

Mr. Panetta arrived in Cairo from Tunisia, where he held talks with that North African country’s new Islamist leaders. He plans to end his trip with a stop Thursday in Jordan.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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