WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that Egypt has made some progress in its democratic transition but must address serious challenges and recent "disturbing" developments if its government is to have the confidence of the Egyptian people and others. The comments came as a key lawmaker said he wouldn't allow the release of any U.S. aid to Egypt until the government proves it is committed to the rule of law.
Meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy at the State Department, Kerry said the U.S. wants Egypt to succeed as a democracy and that its new constitution is a positive step. But, as Egypt prepares for elections next month, he said recent mass death sentences handed down to supporters of the country's deposed president are troubling and call into question the rule of law.
"Even as these positive steps have been taken, we all know there have been disturbing decisions within the judicial process, the court system that have raised serious challenges for all of us," Kerry said. "
"We really are looking for certain things to happen that will give people the sense of confidence about this road ahead," he said. "It's actions, not words, that will make the difference."
Egypt is struggling to restore representative government following last year's military ouster of the country's first-ever democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, in the wake of the revolution that toppled long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak. The country has been plagued by unrest and militant attacks since Morsi's July overthrow. Egypt's military-backed interim government has launched a sweeping campaign against Morsi's backers and members of his Muslim Brotherhood, killing hundreds and jailing thousands.
Kerry and Fahmy met a day after an Egyptian judge sentenced more than 680 people to death stemming from last year's post-coup violence in a mass trial that was widely denounced in the West and by human rights groups.
Fahmy acknowledged that Egypt does face "challenges" but said he was confident they would be overcome. And, he maintained that the recent verdicts were rendered by an independent judiciary.
"We need to deal with the challenges we face without disturbing institutional relationships," he said, referring to the courts.
"They are completely independent from the government but of course they are part of what Egypt is all about," Fahmy said. "I can't comment on the content of the decisions themselves (but) I am confident that due process is allowed and that the legal system will ultimately end up with proper decisions in each of these cases."
"We will build a democracy based on the rule of law," he said.
The latest Egyptian verdict came less than a week after Kerry certified to Congress that Egypt is upholding its peace treaty with Israel and strategic commitments to the U.S., freeing up hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance, and the Pentagon released a hold on the delivery of 10 Apache helicopters to Egypt to help its military combat extremists.
Kerry has not yet certified that Egypt is meeting the democratic standards required for the remainder of the $1.5 billion in U.S. assistance to be sent. But even the $680 million he has approved was in jeopardy on Tuesday as Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., raised objections.
"I am extremely disturbed by the Egyptian government's flaunting of human rights and appalling abuse of the justice system, which are fundamental to any democracy," said Leahy, who chairs the Senate Appropriations panel for U.S. foreign operations.
"I am not prepared to sign off on the delivery of additional aid for the Egyptian military until we have a better understanding of how the aid would be used, and we see convincing evidence that the government is committed to the rule of law," Leahy said on the Senate floor.
Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper contributed to this report.