CAIRO — As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sought Egyptian support on Saturday for an international coalition to combat jihadi groups, Egypt pressed for broader international efforts to fight militants in its troubled neighbor, Libya.
The Egyptian position adds another layer to the complexities facing the United States as it seeks support among allies in the Middle East to battle militants who have overtaken a third of Iraq and Syria and threaten to upend the region.
Cairo's call also risks further aggravating regional rivalries that could undermine U.S. efforts to build a durable coalition. Qatar and Turkey back Islamist-allied militias in Libya, while Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia support their opponents.
Military officials said that in exchange for Egypt's support for the coalition to combat the so-called Islamic State group, it seeks assurances that sorting out Libya will be at the top of the U.S. agenda. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
In meetings with Kerry, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi used language that for the Egyptians clearly referred to Libya, according to a statement by the presidential spokesman.
"(He) stressed that any international coalition against terrorism must be a comprehensive alliance that is not limited to confront a certain organization or to curb a single terrorist hotbed but must expand to include all the terrorist hotbeds across the Middle East and Africa."
Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shurki also brought up this issue more than once during a joint press conference with Kerry.
"We support all international efforts to fight terrorism... and we will take all measures that are intended to eliminate this phenomena altogether, whether in Libya or any other part of the Arab world or in the African continent in particular," he said.
Military operations in Libya would be a major shift in Washington's position — U.S. officials have repeatedly warned against intervention there and said that only a political resolution will end the country's turmoil.
Egypt, for its part, has already moved in that direction however, launching airstrikes against militias in Tripoli last month along with the U.A.E.
Officially, Cairo has repeatedly denied sending troops outside its borders and says it is not planning any military action in Libya, a country now dominated by Islamist-allied militias and with which Egypt shares long stretches of porous borders.
Egypt's government accuses Turkey and Qatar of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, once the country's most organized political organization but now banned and branded a terrorist group by Cairo, a position the United States does not share. Last year the army overthrew the country's elected president, Mohammed Morsi, who came from the group, after mass demonstrations against him.
Nearly 40 nations have agreed to contribute to what Kerry said would be a worldwide fight to defeat the Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. On Thursday, representatives from 10 Arab countries, including Egypt, met with the top American diplomat in the Saudi city of Jiddah promising to "do their share" to fight the Islamic State militants.
"Almost every country has an ability to play some kind of role in this fight against ISIL, and to join this coalition one way or the other," Kerry said, using an acronym for the Islamic State group.
While avoiding delving into details about Egypt's exact role, Kerry referred to the country as "an intellectual and cultural capital to the Muslim world," saying it has a "critical role" to play in denouncing the harsh ideology of the Islamic State group.
Egypt is home to Al-Azhar University, one of the oldest and most revered centers of religious learning for Sunni Muslims. It has issued several statements and religious edicts condemning the Islamic State group and its self-styled caliphate.
Kerry hailed Egypt as an "important partner" in the emerging coalition while stressing that the need for Cairo's support would not lead Washington to ignore human rights concerns.
U.S.-Egypt ties have been strained since July 2013, when el-Sissi, then the army chief, overthrew Morsi amid massive protests demanding his resignation.
The U.S. has criticized Egypt's subsequent massive crackdown on Morsi's supporters and withheld some military aid while urging Cairo to press ahead with a democratic transition and respect human rights.
Kerry called Egypt a friend and an ally, and said the U.S. wants the government in Cairo to succeed. He acknowledged that "sometimes friends have disagreement over one thing or the other" but insisted decades-long ties between Washington and Cairo would endure.
When asked about Egypt imprisoning journalists from the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera network on terrorism-related charges, Kerry said he had raised those concerns with el-Sissi on Saturday.
He insisted: "Let me be clear. The United States doesn't ever trade its concern for human rights for any other objective. It is always a concern. It's an honest concern."