Hillary Rodham Clinton, the US secretary of state, has re-affirmed support for Egypt's democratic transition after holding talks with the nation's newly-elected president, Mohamed Morsi.
Clinton's discussions with Morsi on Saturday, part of a two-day visit, concentrated on the domestic political deadlock and economic development.
The top American diplomat said that her country's "shared strategic interests far outnumber our differences" with Egypt.
"I have come to Cairo to re-affirm the strong support of the United States for the Egyptian people and their democratic transition," Clinton said at a joint news conference with Foreign Minister Mohammed Amr.
"We want to be a good partner and we want to support the democracy that has been achieved by the courage and sacrifice of the Egyptian people," she said. "Democracy is hard."
Clinton is scheduled later to meet with the head of the military council, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi.
She will also see other senior government officials, civil society and business leaders in Cairo, as well as in the country's second city, Alexandria. Religious freedoms for the Coptic minority and women's rights are also on her agenda.
The US has been a long-time ally of Egypt, with $1.5bn in aid received by Cairo annually, most of which goes to the military.
Since officially taking office earlier this month, Morsi has been caught in a power struggle with the military council, which ruled the country for around 16 months following the ouster of Hosni Mubarak last year.
Tension peaked as Morsi tried to reinstate a parliament, dominated by Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood group and other Islamist allies, which had been dissolved by the judiciary and the military prior to his appointment.
Adel Iskandar, an Egypt expert, said that Saturday's meeting represented a "genuine turning point".
He said the bilateral discussions marked "a real tectonic shift in the balance of power in the Arab world at large ... that you can have a moderate, co-operative Islamist government which has mutual interests with the US ... an example of how a middle ground could be forged".
Iskandar also said the current Egyptian government appeared ready to "move forward" despite past US support for Mubarak, and that the "American government would put its money behind both horses [the military and the Muslim Brotherhood] in this race".
US role in Egypt
It is Clinton's second visit to the Arab world's most populous nation since the uprising. Earlier this week Clinton urged dialogue between all parties in the ongoingconstitutional dispute.
Yussef Auf, a judge and constitutional scholar, said: "I think the best phrase they can use now is what Obama said to Morsi [during a telephone call]. We should maintain relations between the two countries on the 'mutual basis of respect'."
The meeting at the presidential palace kicked off a series of high-level sessions aimed at stabilising Egypt's fledgling democracy and its alliance with the US, once rock-solid but now increasingly shaky.
Meanwhile, two US tourists were taken hostage in the Sinai Peninsula on Friday by Bedouin tribesmen seeking the release of an imprisoned kinsman.
Our correspondent said that the question of border security on Egypt's long border with Israel is being discussed during Clinton's visit, especially the issues of human trafficking, illegal migration and weapons smuggling.
She said, "To an extent we have seen changes" in Egypt's relationship with Israel since the fall of Mubarak, "particularly with their policy on the Gaza Strip, where some 1,000 to 1,500 people are now crossing per day at Rafah".
"Clinton concluded [her talks] with an appeal to the new Egyptian leadership to maintain the peace treaty with Israel, which as far as the US is concerned, is the backbone of stability in the region."
A large and vocal crowd massed outside the hotel where Clinton was staying in Cairo, chanting and carrying anti-American signs.
Clinton is on a regional visit and will travel to Israel next, where she is expected to meet with top officials.
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|Timothy V. Gatto|