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Egypt upheaval: What does US hope to accomplish in dispatching a diplomat?

By dispatching a senior State Department official to Cairo, the United States is signaling that it wants to see a return to a democratic government – and an end to continuing violence – as soon as possible.

In his two-day visit, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns is holding talks with Egypt’s military-backed interim government. With him also making time to meet with Egyptian business leaders, the US is likewise looking to emphasize that putting Egypt’s economy back on the rails and addressing Egyptians’ concerns about daily living will be key in the country’s transition period.

Mr. Burns, who began his visit Sunday, is expected to “underscore US support for the Egyptian people, an end to all violence, and a transition leading to an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government,” the State Department said in a statement.

Speaking with reporters Monday, Burns said the US is taking no sides in Egypt but supports the aspirations of the Egyptian people for democracy and prosperity. Following a meeting with interim President Adly Mansour, Burns said he urged Egyptian authorities not to undertake politically motivated arrests.

After removing President Mohamed Morsi from power July 3, the Egyptian military arrested him, and he remains detained at an undisclosed location. The military also arrested leaders of Mr. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.

With $1.6 billion in annual US aid to Egypt – most of it to the military – hanging in the balance, the Obama administration is also using Burns’s visit to step up the pressure on Egypt’s new interim authorities to take actions that will make it easier for Washington to keep that aid flowing.

The White House last week said that it would not be in the interests of the US to suspend aid to Egypt. At the same time, officials said a review is under way of Egypt’s case to determine if the assistance can continue.

Critics in Congress are pressing for a suspension of American aid, based on US law that stipulates that no aid (other than funding for democracy promotion) is to flow to countries where a military coup has deposed a democratically elected government.

Proponents of an aid suspension say there is no question that Egypt’s deposed president was brought down by a military coup. Others, including a growing number of US-Egypt business and pro-democracy groups, are publicly making the case that Morsi’s ouster was the next chapter in Egypt’s political revolution and that the military merely responded to the Egyptian public’s rejection of an increasingly authoritative leader.

The US Embassy in Cairo reopened Monday after being closed for two weeks amid Egypt’s upheaval. But the US – and in particular US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson – remained a favored whipping boy of both sides in opposing demonstrations that continue across the country.

Morsi’s backers in his Muslim Brotherhood movement rail against the US as the enabler that made it possible for the military to depose an elected government. On the other side, the anti-Morsi forces blast the US for cooperating with Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood even as they imposed an increasingly restrictive and Islamist system of government.

In fact, anti-Morsi protesters congregating in Cairo’s Tahrir Square continue to hoist placards with images of Ambassador Patterson and President Obama –with either X’s or the universal symbol of a circle with a line through it over their faces. As such, Burns also wants to address Egypt’s surge of anti-Americanism.

It remains to be seen if a two-day visit by the State Department’s second-highest diplomat and his interaction with Egypt’s interim leaders can reduce anti-US ire – or if Burns simply sees his X’ed-out image added to Egypt’s protests.

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