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story.lead_photo.caption U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (left) meets Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry on Monday in Cairo.

CAIRO -- Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Monday called on Egypt to hold free and transparent presidential elections next month in a vote that critics say will be neither.

On the first day of a weeklong trip to the Middle East, Tillerson met with Egyptian President Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi, the former military general who rose to power in a coup. El-Sissi is running for a second four-year term after several potential candidates were arrested or otherwise discouraged from challenging him. The only other candidate on the ballot is a little-known supporter of el-Sissi who filed at the last moment, leaving el-Sissi effectively unopposed.

In the evening, el-Sissi's office said he "underscored the robust strategic relations between Egypt and the U.S." when he met with Tillerson, urging further American engagement in the country.

Earlier in the day, Tillerson met with Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry. In a joint news conference afterward, Tillerson pledged that the United States would remain "steadfast" in supporting Egypt as it battles militants who have attacked mosques and churches in which people have been massacred while praying.

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Aides said Tillerson privately raised U.S. concerns about democracy and human rights, particularly in the run-up to the March presidential election. Tillerson did not publicly expand on what he had said, other than restate U.S. support for free elections everywhere.

"The United States, as it does in all countries, supports a transparent and credible electoral process and all citizens being given the right and the opportunity to participate freely and fairly," he told reporters.

Tillerson said they also had discussed "the promotion and protection of human rights and the vital role of civil society in Egypt."

Many human-rights groups consider this the most repressive political environment in modern Egyptian history. Hundreds of websites are blocked, and human-rights groups say civilians have been among the casualties during a military anti-terrorist campaign in northern Sinai. Egypt's prosecutor general is investigating leading opposition figures who have called for a boycott of the presidential election.

When asked about the allegations of political repression in Egypt, Shoukry said that "development in the social and political field is an evolutionary process."

"The Egyptian people have shown their commitment and their determination and their ability to change their course and to indicate their dissatisfaction if they deemed they were dissatisfied," he added. "They have been able to change two governments in the last seven years, and they have undertaken legislative elections and know how to protect their rights and advocate."

Shoukry also said that while Egypt values U.S. support, the two diplomats had agreed on the principle of not interfering with the internal affairs of the other country.

"We highly value this relationship and we thank the United States for what it presents to Egypt in terms of support, which benefits both countries," Shoukry said, adding that Cairo hoped to further boost cooperation.

Tillerson did not answer a question about whether the United States would consider withholding more military aid if it determined that Egypt's elections were not fair and credible. Last August, the United States denied Egypt $95.7 million in aid and withheld another $195 million because of its failure to make progress on respecting democratic norms and human rights.

Much of the discussion appeared to center on Egypt's attempts to combat militants. On Friday, it began airstrikes in northern Sinai targeting terrorists like the Islamic State.

"We agreed that we would continue our close cooperation on counterterrorism measures, including our joint commitment to the defeat of ISIS, and Egypt has been a very important member of the defeat-ISIS coalition from the beginning," Tillerson said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. "Egypt deals with the threats of ISIS themselves and are dealing with it currently in the Sinai."

The operation, announced in a televised statement by army spokesman Col. Tamer el-Rifai, began early Friday and covers north and central Sinai as well as the Nile Delta and Western Desert, and targets "terrorist and criminal elements and organizations." It is unclear how long it will last.

In its latest update, Egypt's military said Monday that it had killed a dozen militants in firefights and arrested 92 people, bringing the total militant body count to 28, based on earlier statements. It says it has destroyed dozens of targets, including vehicles, weapons caches, hide-outs, communications centers and illegal opium fields in the sweep.

North Sinai is closed off for nonresidents and journalists, and the army's casualty figures could not be independently confirmed. Telephone connections to the area, both mobile and landlines, are often shut down as well. The army has not mentioned any killed or wounded on its own side.

Information for this article was contributed by Carol Morello of The Washington Post, and by Brian Rohan of The Associated Press.

A Section on 02/13/2018

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