CAIRO – As John Kerry heads to Egypt on Saturday for his first visit as secretary of state, he faces a barrage of accusations from liberal and secular Egyptians who say Washington is siding with the ruling Muslim Brotherhood in the country's sharp political divisions.
The United States has had its own frustrations with the mainly liberal and secular opposition, which has been plagued by disorganization and divisions. This week, it pressed the main opposition grouping, the National Salvation Front, to reverse its decision to boycott parliamentary elections due to begin in April.
For months, Egypt has been locked in political crisis, amid successive waves of protests against Islamist President Mohammed Morsi that have repeatedly turned into deadly clashes and rioting.
The opposition accuses Morsi and the Brotherhood, from which he hails, of dominating power in Egypt, effectively stepping in to the same role as ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak and failing to carry out reforms while their supporters seek to instill a more religiously conservative system. Morsi's administration and the Brotherhood, in turn, say their opponents are trying to use street unrest to overturn their election victories.
Washington, Egypt's longtime economic and military benefactor, has kept relatively warm ties with Morsi. The Obama administration has praised him for helping resolve last year's battles between Israel and Hamas, the Islamic militant rulers of the Gaza Strip, and for maintaining Egypt's peace treaty with Israel.
The U.S. has said it wants to encourage the building of democracy in Egypt and, amid the political turmoil, has urged all sides to work out their differences. But the opposition says U.S. officials have voiced little criticism of what it calls the Brotherhood's undemocratic ways of imposing power, including pushing through an Islamist-backed constitution despite an opposition boycott at the end of its drafting.
At least two opposition figures said they rejected invitations to meet with Kerry when he holds talks with Egyptian political parties Saturday, ahead of the American diplomat's meetings the next day with Morsi and the head of Egypt's powerful military.
Ahmed el-Borai, a member of the National Salvation Front, was quoted in local newspapers saying that he rejected a U.S. Embassy's invitation "so as to not allow a foreign party to dictate its will on Egyptians."
Similarly, Egypt's oldest opposition party, al-Wafd, said its chairman, el-Sayed el-Badawi, had also declined the embassy's invitation to meet with Kerry.
Also not meeting with Kerry is Mohamed ElBaradei, one of the Salvation Front's top leaders and perhaps the country's most prominent opposition figure — though it is not clear if he was ever invited for a face-to-face.
The anti-Morsi camp's anger with Kerry and the U.S. was on clear display Friday.
On its front page, the independent Al-Tahrir daily ran a large cartoon of Kerry, calling him "the Ikhwani" — or Brotherhood member — and depicting him with an Islamist's beard and the "zibeeba," a mark on the forehead many devout Muslim men have from kneeling in prayer five times a day.
Also on display was the continued, angry polarization in the country's politics.
The head of the Press Syndicate, Brotherhood member Mamdouh el-Wali, was mobbed by young journalists chanting "down with Brotherhood rule" as he left the syndicate headquarters during elections for a new chief of the union. The crowd shoved and jostled el-Wali, with one person slapping him on the back of the head, before he was hustled into his car.
El-Wali has been sharply criticized by other journalists for not taking legal action over the death of a young journalist during street battles between Brotherhood supporters and anti-Morsi opponents in December. He was also a member of the Islamist-dominated assembly that drafted the country's new constitution but did not push for inclusion of articles to protect reporters from imprisonment as many in the media demand.
Several thousand backers of the army on Friday also held a rally in a Cairo suburb calling on the powerful military to come back a take power, a sign of how a contingent in the anti-Morsi camp sees the generals as a possible protection against Islamist rule.
The State Department's call on all political groups to participate in the upcoming parliamentary elections particularly angered many in the opposition, who saw Washington's support for the election as backing for the Islamists themselves.
One opposition group, the National Association for Change, denounced the comments as "blatant interference in Egypt's internal affairs."
Hamdeen Sabahi, another senior figure in the Salvation Front, called on Kerry to be consistent in his comments about human rights and U.S. support of democracy.
In an interview with the Egyptian satellite channel ONTV late Thursday, Sabahi said Washington is only thinking of its interests in the region and accused the United States of striking a deal with the Brotherhood.
President Barack Obama spoke by phone this week with Morsi, emphasizing the Egyptian leader's "responsibility to protect the democratic principles that the Egyptian people fought so hard to secure" and urged him and all political groups to find consensus, the White House said.
Obama also "welcomed Egypt's continued role in advancing regional peace and maintaining the ceasefire in Gaza" — in what many in the anti-Morsi camp here see as a sign that Washington is more concerned with ensuring peace with Israel than with democracy in Egypt.
Bahey Eldin Hassan, of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, wrote an open letter to Obama earlier this month, saying that Washington should stop commenting on developments in Egypt. He said Washington's comments give Morsi's government "political cover."