Egypt's Mursi starts first trip to Europe as president
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - President Mohamed Mursi travels to Brussels on Thursday for his first visit to Europe since becoming Egypt's first freely elected leader in June, hoping to reassure the European Union of his democratic credentials and win pledges of economic aid.
European governments are keen to build up ties with Egypt after the collapse of Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian rule last year, but want assurances that Cairo's Islamist government will remain an ally of the West and an example to the region.
Mursi's visit will be clouded by attacks late on Tuesday when protesters against a U.S.-made film depicting the Prophet Mohammad scaled the walls of the U.S. embassy in Cairo and tore down the American flag. In Libya, gunmen attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and killed the U.S. ambassador and three other diplomats.
"The political context of this visit is very important," a senior EU official said. "Egypt is now debating its future constitution which will be key for the country ... and we hope a reference for the rest of the Arab countries."
Financial assistance is a crucial issue for Mursi, after last year's revolt against decades of Mubarak's rule damaged tourism revenues and foreign investment.
Egypt has already requested a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund in the hope of a deal by the end of year, and has asked for 500 million euros ($644 million) of aid from the European Commission, the EU executive.
But its needs could be far bigger. A senior EU official said on Wednesday that it may need financing greater than $10 billion to shore up the state budget and rebuild investor confidence after 18 months of political turmoil.
The European Union has yet to make a decision on aid, but is preparing for possible discussions on a free trade agreement with Egypt, which could start in the coming months.
In the United States, the administration of President Barack Obama hopes to go to Congress soon with a plan for using $1 billion in debt relief to help stabilize the Egyptian economy and expand its private sector, a senior U.S. State Department official said last week.
The talks in Brussels are expected to cover economic support, job creation, agriculture, energy and European private sector investment in Egypt, as well as the Cairo government's aspirations to develop gas and renewable energy industries.
Mursi will also have to address questions over a new constitution for Egypt, as talks in Cairo stall over the role of Islam in law.
He is aiming to persuade the West that it can deal with an Egypt governed by a president who rose to power under the Muslim Brotherhood, a group opposed to Israel and with which Washington only opened formal ties last year.
European officials say they want to make clear links between aid given to Egypt and democratic reforms, as a signal to other countries in North Africa that new EU rules on assistance to Europe's neighbors are working.
Mursi travels to the United States later this month. In Brussels, he will meet European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Herman van Rompuy, president of the European Council, which represents EU national governments. ($1 = 0.7759 euros)
(Editing by Louise Ireland)