U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pressed Egypt's former military leaders Sunday to allow greater political freedoms, warning the nation faced a "critical moment", as he arrived on a surprise visit.
Kerry became the highest-ranking US official to meet President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi since he came to power earlier this month, as part of a rocky transition to democracy since the ousting of long-time leader Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
The top US diplomat's tour is also focused on trying to find a political solution in Iraq, where Islamic militants were Sunday making new gains in an offensive that has triggered international alarm.
"Obviously this is a critical moment of transition in Egypt, enormous challenges," Kerry said as he met first with new Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri, before then huddling with Sisi at the presidential palace in Cairo.
But he vowed that "the U.S. is very interested in working closely" with the new government "in order to make this transition as rapidly and smoothly as possible".
Since Egypt's first freely elected leader, Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, was toppled by Sisi in July 2013, a government crackdown on his supporters has left more than 1,400 people dead in street clashes and at least 15,000 jailed.
U.S. officials warned Washington has deep concerns about the government's "polarizing tactics" and acknowledged they were "balancing" different strategic interests in what is a "complicated" relationship.
While there have been "flickering signs of positive movement", more could be done to improve the political environment, a senior State Department official said.
Another official told journalists traveling on the plane with Kerry that "the Egyptian government needs to have a very politically inclusive approach, which means that they need to include and find ways to reach out to the Muslim Brothers".
Kerry's visit comes a day after an Egyptian court confirmed death sentences for 183 Islamists, including Muslim Brotherhood chief Mohamed Badie, after a speedy mass trial that sparked an international outcry.
Kerry's latest diplomatic mission, that will also see him visit Amman, Brussels and Paris, is expected to focus on uniting Iraq's fractious leaders and urging its neighbors to use their sway to ensure the speedy formation of a new government while cutting off funds to the militants.
US officials also revealed that $572 million (420 million euros) in aid, which had been frozen since October, was released to the Cairo government about 10 days ago after finally winning a green light from Congress. It will mainly go to pay existing defense contracts.
US officials announced in April they planned to resume some of the annual $1.5 billion in mostly military aid to Cairo, including 10 Apache helicopter gunships for counterterrorism efforts in the Sinai Peninsula.
But the aircraft remain in storage in the U.S., an official confirmed Sunday.
"There's a strong desire on the part of the United States for this transition to succeed," the first senior State Department official said.
"We have a longstanding relationship... that's built on several different pillars. It's at a difficult juncture right now, that's true, and we have serious concerns about the political environment," he added.
Egypt, one of only two Arab nations to have a peace treaty with Israel, has long been seen as a key strategic ally and a cornerstone to regional stability.
But the political turmoil since Mubarak's ouster has paralyzed the nation, leaving it more concerned with domestic problems than regional matters despite the upheavals of the Arab Spring.
Washington's concerns about Cairo include a new law controlling demonstrations, "the lack of space for dissent, mass trials and death sentences", the official said.
"We are concerned that some of the tactics they're using to address their security issues are polarizing... they in some ways radicalize certain aspects of Egyptian society in ways that are not supportive of overall stability."
Kerry was also hearing directly from civil society leaders about the situation in the country in a roundtable gathering at a Cairo hotel.