WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States and Egypt will develop an action plan to boost trade and assist the Arab world's most populist country through a difficult transition, the U.S. Trade Representative's office said on Tuesday.
"In the wake of the extraordinary changes underway ... we want to help Egypt empower individuals to make their own economic, as well as political choices," U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said in a statement.
The announcement came on the first anniversary of the start of a popular uprising centered in Cairo's Tahrir Square that drove former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from power.
Kirk met last week with Egyptian Minister of Industry and Foreign Trade Mahmoud Eisa, who was in Washington to court badly-need foreign investment.
The Obama administration is "actively working to broaden and deepen commercial links with Egypt - and other countries in transition - because we are convinced trade and investment liberalization will help drive the economic growth that is so critical to Egypt's and the region's future," Kirk said.
USTR said the action plan, which the two governments plan to finalize in coming weeks, will have three main objectives: boosting exports, expanding investment and supporting small- and medium-sized enterprises, with a focus on creating jobs.
One key element could include developing a work plan to expand the use of "Qualifying Industrial Zones" in Egypt, which provide U.S. duty-free treatment for Egyptian goods made with Israeli components, the trade office said.
The two sides will explore other ways to expand trade, including encouraging Egyptian companies to make greater use of the Generalized System of Preferences program, which provides duty-free treatment for many developing country goods.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has pressed the United States and Egypt to consider launching talks on a free trade agreement to stimulate trade and encourage U.S. companies to increase investment in the fragile democracy.
"Today's announcement is a good first step but trade officials should now think boldly and look longer-term at seriously pursuing free trade negotiations with Egypt," said Lionel Johnson, vice president of Middle East and North Africa affairs, at the U.S. Chamber.
Two-way trade between the United States and Egypt is relatively small. Last year, the United States imported about $2 billion worth of goods from the Mideast country. It exported about $6 billion worth of goods to Egypt.
Reporting By Doug Palmer; Editing by Cynthia Osterman