CAIRO — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told Egypt's political and business leaders on Saturday that it was urgent that their country institute economic reforms and satisfy the conditions the International Monetary Fund has set for a $4.8 billion loan.
"It is paramount, essential, urgent that the Egyptian economy get stronger, that it gets back on its feet," Kerry told a group of Egyptian and U.S. business executives in Cairo. "It's clear to us that the IMF arrangement needs to be reached, that we need to give the market that confidence."
Kerry's visit — his first trip to an Arab capital as secretary of state — comes at a time of economic peril in Egypt. The country's economy has teetered near collapse for months, with soaring unemployment, a gaping budget deficit, dwindling hard-currency reserves, and steep declines in the currency's value.
The fund's loan is crucial, economists say, because it would provide a seal of approval that Egypt's economy is on a path toward self-sufficiency, allowing it to obtain enough other international loans to fill in its deficit. Both the United States and the European Union are prepared to provide substantial additional assistance if Egypt and the IMF can come to terms.
But even as Kerry stressed the need for prompt economic steps — and the political peace needed to achieve those changes — some opponents of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi sought to put the spotlight on the nation's uneasy political course.
Parliamentary elections are scheduled for April. The major opposition group, the National Salvation Front, has announced that it plans to boycott the vote to protest what it says is a push by Morsi and his Islamist allies to dominate politics.
Members of the political opposition were invited to a Saturday session with Kerry. Some members, including Hamdeen Sabahi, who came in third in the presidential election last year, decided not to attend. Mohamed ElBaradei, one of the leaders of the National Salvation Front, chose not to go, but to speak by phone with Kerry instead.
Kerry also met separately with Amr Moussa, a former secretary-general of the Arab League and the head of the National Congress Party.
The IMF has held on-again, off-again negotiations with Egypt for more than a year about providing the $4.8 billion.
The fund has imposed two difficult conditions. It has required the Egyptian government to commit itself to undertaking painful reforms such as raising taxes and reducing energy subsidies.
It has also required a demonstration of political support for the reforms and the loan, to ensure that the government will honor its commitments in the future. That requires a dependable political process, as well as a degree of consensus that Egypt's political factions have been unable to sustain.
Kerry is scheduled to meet with Morsi today. The secretary of state said he would discuss specific steps the United States could take to boost the Egyptian economy if Egypt worked out a loan package with the IMF. That will be Kerry's final meeting in Egypt before departing for Saudi Arabia, the seventh stop on his nine-nation tour.