CAIRO — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton hoped to use her first meeting with Egypt's new Islamist president on Saturday to steer Mohammed Morsi toward opening a dialogue with the military that could end the country's political crisis.
Clinton's talks with Morsi at the presidential palace kicked off a series of high-level meetings aimed at stabilizing Egypt's democratic transition and its alliance with the United States, once rock-solid but now increasingly shaky.
They didn't shake hands, at least publicly, and their initial greeting was the subject of speculation because of Morsi's Muslim faith.
"Things change (at) kind of warped speed," Clinton told Morsi. The president, speaking in English, said, "We are very very keen to meet you and happy that you are here." Clinton and Morsi were seated perpendicular to one another, the American on a sofa and the Egyptian on a chair.
Her schedule also included sessions with the head of the military council, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, and the foreign minister, Mohamed Amr.
Morsi is in the middle of a showdown with the generals who ruled Egypt for 16 months after President Hosni Mubarak's ouster and who handed power over to him on June 30. The generals retained far-reaching powers and stripped Morsi of many of his before they stepped down and he was inaugurated.
That move followed a decision last month by Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court to dissolve the Islamist-dominated parliament, the first democratically elected, after ruling that a third of its members were elected illegally. Morsi has issued a decree to bring lawmakers, many of whom are Morsi's allies in the Muslim Brotherhood, back into session.
The U.S. has been careful not to take sides, focusing on principles instead of personalities and parties. The Obama administration has called on all sides to negotiate a path forward that remains faithful to the ideals of Egypt's 2011 revolution.
The message speaks to Washington's broader effort to build a new relationship with Egypt after three decades of close cooperation with Mubarak despite his abysmal record on democracy and human rights.
This has involved some uncomfortable changes for the U.S., including occasionally harsh criticism of once faithful partners in the Egyptian military and words of support for Islamist parties far more skeptical of the American agenda for the Middle East.
In her discussions, Clinton was expected to stress the need for Egypt to adhere to its 1979 peace treaty with Israel, while also seeking continued counterterrorism cooperation and offering U.S. support to help Cairo regain control of the increasingly lawless Sinai Peninsula — a major security concern for Israel.
For Egypt's sake, Clinton was prepared to promise hundreds of millions of dollars in debt relief, private investment capital and job creation funds. She planned to tell Morsi that she was sending a large business delegation to Cairo in September to strengthen U.S.-Egyptian economic ties.
Clinton was to visit the port city of Alexandria on Sunday to meet with women and young entrepreneurs, and then was to head to Israel.
Her stop in the Mideast comes after a weeklong trip to Asia, where she courted investments and sought democratic reforms from governments long seen as closer to China than the U.S.