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Vice President Mike Pence gets an earful in Cairo on his first official Middle East tour

Vice President Mike Pence gets an earful in Cairo on his first official Middle East tour
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi, right, chats with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence during their meeting in Cairo, on Jan. 20, 2018. Pence arrived in Egypt at the start of a regional tour that also will take him to Jordan and Israel. (Khaled Desouki / POOL / EPA / Shutterstock)

Vice President Pence met with Egypt's President Abdel Fattah Sisi on Saturday in a 2 1/2-hour session that focused, in part, on Egypt's anger over President Trump's abrupt decision last month to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

"We heard Al Sisi out," Pence, who is making his first official trip to the Middle East, told reporters after the meeting. He described the Egyptian leader's complaints as "a disagreement between friends."

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Last month, Egypt urged the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution rejecting Trump's decision on Jerusalem, which upended hopes for a negotiated peace deal with Palestinians. The U.S. vetoed the resolution, but the General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a similar nonbinding resolution.

Pence is likely to hear similar concerns about Trump's Middle East policies at his next stop, in Amman, Jordan, where he arrived Saturday night for meetings with King Abdullah on Sunday. He goes to Israel after that but will not meet any Palestinian officials.

During their conversation, Pence said he told Sisi that the Trump administration would support a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians if both parties agree, long the basis for a proposed resolution of the conflict. "My perception was that he was encouraged by that message," Pence said.

Pence is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Cairo since before the 2011 Arab Spring uprising ousted Hosni Mubarak, a longtime U.S.-backed strongman. Sisi, a former Army general, became president in 2014 after he helped lead a military coup in 2013 that ousted a democratically elected leader.

Pence said he and Sisi spoke about joint efforts to combat terrorism, including Egypt's battle with Al Qaeda-linked insurgents in the Sinai.

"The United States stands shoulder to shoulder with Egypt in their fight against terrorism in this country," he told reporters.

Pence also said he brought up U.S. concerns about religious freedom in Egypt and said Sisi assured him that he wants to promote religious diversity in Egypt.

Despite warming ties between Cairo and Washington, Sisi did not release any jailed journalists, human rights activists or other political prisoners as a goodwill gesture for Pence's visit.

Pence said he had raised the plight of two Americans, Ahmed Etiwy and Moustafa Kassem, who are imprisoned in Egypt. He said Sisi assured him "he would give very serious attention to both cases," although he did not offer to release them.

Etiwy, a 27-year-old student from New York, and Kassem, 52, an auto parts dealer from New York, were arrested along with hundreds of Egyptians after the 2013 military coup.

U.S. lawmakers have complained that at least 18 Americans are imprisoned in Egypt and it's unclear why Pence focused on only those two.

Sisi's authoritarian government has effectively banned protests and freedom of expression, jailed political opponents and conducted anti-gay persecution. In September, Human Rights Watch denounced what it called "widespread and systematic" use of torture by Egypt's security forces.

Egyptian security blocked a dozen American reporters who had accompanied Pence from Washington from getting out of their bus when Pence arrived for his meeting with Sisi at the Al Etehadiya Palace. After prolonged negotiations by Pence's aides, the media was escorted in after 90 minutes.

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