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US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived Sunday in Cairo to push Egypt's military-installed rulers for democratic progress, on his first visit since the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.
On the eve of the opening of Morsi's trial, Kerry landed in Cairo, an AFP correspondent said, seeking to shore up ties with a key regional ally and ensure Egypt moves ahead on plans to restore democracy just weeks after Washington suspended part of its $1.5 billion in annual aid.
US officials said Kerry -- the most senior figure of the US administration to visit since Morsi's July ouster -- would meet with Egyptian leaders including interim president Adly Mansour, foreign minister Nabil Fahmy and powerful military chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
His talks would focus on how Washington wants to see a political transition which is "sustainable, inclusive and democratic," a senior State Department official told reporters.
Kerry would also carve out time during his brief six-hour visit to meet behind closed doors with members of Egyptian civil society, who are increasingly alarmed by a crackdown on protestors and the slowness of a return to democracy.
Morsi, an Islamist leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who became Egypt's first democratically elected president, was toppled by the military on July 3 after a turbulent year in power that deeply polarised Egyptians.
According to the interim government's timetable, parliamentary elections are to be held by mid-2014 followed by presidential polls.
More than 1,000 people have died in a crackdown on protests by Morsi supporters since July, and Washington last month froze some of its military aid to Egypt in frustration at the lack of progress.
To Cairo's anger, Washington said it was "recalibrating" aid to Egypt, which includes about $1.3 billion for military assistance, and suspending delivery of items such as Apache helicopters, F-16s aircraft, M1A1 Abrams tank parts and Harpoon missiles.
The United States had for three decades supported Morsi's predecessor Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted by a popular uprising in 2011, relying on Egypt to help maintain stability in the volatile region.
But Cairo now says it wants to reposition its foreign policy to "serve national interests".
"We have strong relations with the US and EU. We are opening with others to expand our options," foreign ministry spokesman Badr Abdelaty told reporters over the weekend.
Kerry's visit is the first stop on a packed 12-day trip which will also take in Saudi Arabia, Poland, Israel, Bethlehem, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria and Morocco.
The aim of squeezing in a Cairo stop was to examine progress on "issues that are important to the United States" such as freedom of assembly and the press, protection of minorities, the participation of civil society and human rights.
The US will be informed by "a constant review of progress to help us understand how well the Egyptians are moving along their roadmap (and) when it's appropriate to lift some of the holds that we have on the equipment," the senior State Department official said.
Privately US officials say there are some specific requests the US administration has of the interim government, without going into detail.
The timing of the visit is awkward however, coming on the eve of Morsi's trial, with 14 others, on charges of inciting the murder of protesters outside the presidential palace in December 2012.
Washington has called for Morsi's release and an end to politically motivated trials but has also stopped short of denouncing his ouster as a coup.
"Mr Morsi proved unwilling or unable to govern inclusively, alienating many Egyptians," Acting Assistant Secretary Beth Jones said last week.
The military had responded to "the desires of millions of Egyptians who believed the revolution had taken a wrong turn," she added.
Kerry will also seek to soothe anger in Egypt at the US suspension of aid for a key ally, seen as a cornerstone of regional stability thanks to its 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
The aid freeze has also met with a chilly reception in Riyadh -- another vital US partner -- and Kerry will fly there later Sunday for what could be tough talks with King Abdullah.
It will be Kerry's first talks with the Saudi king since he took up his post in February, and they come amid rare tensions with the Saudis also fuelled by the war in Syria and a nascent US outreach to arch-foe Iran.