Pentagon chief pledges more support for Egypt's el-Sissi

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U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis met Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi and top brass in Cairo yesterday, pledging support for the American ally on his first regional tour.

The brief visit, with Mattis later setting off to Israel, came after Sissi hit it off with Trump during a White House meeting earlier this month.

Sissi's visit marked a shift in relations after Trump's predecessor Barack Obama had given the Egyptian leader the cold shoulder for leading the overthrow of the first- democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi in 2013.

Obama temporarily suspended military aid to Egypt following a bloody crackdown on Morsi's supporters.

Trump, however, has set aside criticism of Sissi's human rights record while pledging to maintain support for the key US ally which receives an annual $1.3 billion in military aid.

The meeting "addressed aspects of military and security cooperation between the two countries and ways to further enhance them," the president's office said in a statement.

Sissi told Mattis he wanted to "strengthen the ongoing military cooperation between the two countries," it said. Mattis in turn "reiterated the US's commitment to reinvigorating these relations and broadening prospects for cooperation," it added.

After meeting Sissi, Mattis held talks with Defense Minister Sedki Sobhi at his headquarters, where he was received with a marching band playing the U.S. national anthem. "We've always had an open relationship," he told Sobhi.

Mattis participated in a wreath laying ceremony at Cairo's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He then prepared to fly on to Israel on the next leg of his tour, which started in Saudi Arabia.

Egypt is among the top recipients of U.S. military and economic assistance, but the aid is being evaluated as part of the Trump administration's push for dramatic budget cuts to diplomacy and development. It receives $1.3 billion annually in aid, plus hundreds of millions in economic assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development and other programs potentially on the chopping block.

Trump has vowed to work closely with Arab allies in the fight against the Daesh. As a neighbor to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, Libya and Sudan, maintaining stability in Egypt is a high priority. But it has sometimes been a relationship from which the U.S. receives little in return, and Trump has said he will not tolerate imbalances in other partnerships, as with China and many European allies.

In Egypt, the talks touched on the military's counterinsurgency in the Sinai Peninsula, where a Daesh terrorist group affiliate has killed hundreds of soldiers and policemen. Mattis "affirmed Egypt's pivotal role in the Middle East and commended its counter-terrorism efforts," the president's office said. It claimed two church bombings in the cities of Alexandria and Tanta on April 9 that killed 45 people, months after a deadly Cairo church bombing. The Pentagon is also concerned with preventing militants from crossing Libya's porous border with Egypt and the reported presence of Russian troops in Egypt's western desert, which Cairo has denied. After Israel, Mattis will return to the Gulf on Saturday for talks in Qatar.

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