CAIRO — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met for the first time Saturday with new President Mohammed Morsi in a fresh push to strengthen U.S.-Egyptian relations as the country enters an unpredictable era in which an Islamist leader is clashing with a secular military over control of the nation.
Clinton's talks with Morsi signaled a historic shift from the days when U.S. diplomats visited President Hosni Mubarak, a stalwart American partner on countering terrorism and preserving Egypt's peace treaty with Israel. With Mubarak toppled by popular revolt last year, Washington is recalibrating its approach as it deals with a freely elected president suspicious of American designs on the Middle East.
Egypt's intensifying power struggle threatens to upend its fledgling democracy, and the dilemma Clinton faced was starkly apparent: She showed her support for Morsi but is expected today to meet with Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the country's top military commander, who has rebuffed pressure to cede authority.
"I have come to Cairo to reaffirm the strong support of the United States for the Egyptian people and their democratic transition," she said. "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."
The trip by Clinton to the Arab world's most populous state unfolds as the Obama administration is moving to keep pace with months of regional upheaval. Egypt has been a key to U.S. policy since the 1970s, but there is sharpening concern in Washington that new Islamist leaders in Tunisia and Egypt will gradually chart a different course even as they seek American aid and investment.
The pivotal moment was underscored when Clinton met Morsi, a U.S.-educated engineer who ran as a candidate for the Muslim Brotherhood, in the presidential palace.
The Muslim Brotherhood had been outlawed by Mubarak for decades, and American officials had refused to publicly meet with its members.
Egypt is consumed with economic problems, and its foreign policy is not likely to change dramatically in the short term.