WASHINGTON Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday he may visit Egypt in the coming weeks in what would be his first trip since the army toppled the country's democratically elected president on July 3.
Ties between Washington and Cairo have deteriorated since the ouster of former President Mohamed Mursi, who was elected last year after the toppling of authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak, a longtime U.S. ally, in February 2011.
In one sign of the strains, the United States on October 9 said it would withhold deliveries of tanks, fighter aircraft, helicopters and missiles as well as $260 million in cash aid pending Egypt's progress on democracy and human rights.
The military's removal of Mursi has presented U.S. President Barack Obama with a dilemma.
On the one hand, he wants to maintain ties with a country of strategic importance because of its peace treaty with Israel, its control of the Suez Canal and its status as the Arab world's most populous nation.
On the other, he is reluctant to be seen as acquiescing in the ouster of a popularly elected leader, albeit an Islamist who emerged from the Muslim Brotherhood movement and whom the U.S. government had come to view as ineffective.
Kerry raised the possibility of an upcoming trip to Egypt at a town hall meeting with State Department employees.
"I think we may be going to Cairo sometime in the next weeks and one of the meetings that I insisted on having was that we make sure we meet with a cross-section of civil society," Kerry said in response to a question about the importance of engaging civil society groups.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters the department had not yet finalized Kerry's upcoming travel.
Kerry has gone to Egypt once since becoming secretary of state, on March 2 and 3, when he announced plans to give Mursi's government $190 million budget support and to release $60 million for an Egyptian-American Enterprise Fund that would support small and medium companies in the private sector.
U.S. officials said they had decided to give Mursi that support after he promised to take the painful economic reforms needed to secure a loan from the International Monetary Fund.
They were disappointed, however, by the Mursi government's failure to move fast on such reforms.
The U.S. government has repeatedly urged the current Egyptian authorities to govern in a more inclusive manner, code for finding a modus vivendi with the Muslim Brotherhood and making progress toward a restoration of democratic rule.
The Brotherhood refuses to work with the military, which it says staged a coup and sabotaged Egypt's democratic gains after the revolt that toppled Mubarak. The military denies it carried out a coup, saying it responded to the will of the people.
(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Jim Loney)