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Clinton holds first meeting with Egypt's Morsi amid political standoff

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with newly elected Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi for the first time, arriving in Egypt amid a showdown between the Islamist president and the country’s powerful military leadership that has filled the gap since the ouster of long-time President Hosni Mubarak.

In comments at a news conference after her meeting with Morsi, Clinton said the United States supports the full establishment of democratic rule in Egypt and the return of its military to an exclusively national security role. She was scheduled to meet on Sunday with Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi who headed a group of generals who oversaw Egypt's transition period.

"The United States supports the full transition to civilian rule with all that entails,'' Clinton said during a news conference after her meeting with Morsi. She commended the military's stabilizing role during Egypt's transition, Reuters reported.

 "But there is more work ahead. And I think the issues around the parliament, the constitution have to be resolved between and among Egyptians. I will look forward to discussing these issues tomorrow with Field Marshall Tantawi and in working to support the military's return to a purely national security role.'' 

The Egyptian military ruled the country for 16 months until Morsi's inauguration on June 30, but the generals retained far-reaching powers and stripped the presidency of many powers before they stepped down.

Even before that, Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court dissolved the first democratically elected parliament, which was Islamist-dominated, after ruling that a third of its members were elected illegally. Morsi has tried to reinstate the lawmakers, many of them allies from the Muslim Brotherhood.

Prior to their meeting Clinton and Morsi exchanged pleasantries in the presence of the media, the BBC reported. Clinton talked about the rapid pace of change in Egypt.

Morsi said: "We are very very keen to meet you and happy that you are here."

The Associated Press noted that the two did not shake hands when they first met, sparking speculation about whether Morsi’s beliefs prohibited it. But the president shook hands with Clinton and the entire U.S. delegation behind closed doors, according to a U.S. official, the AP reported later.

Clinton's trip is also intended to shore up the U.S.-Egypt relationship. Mubarak was a staunch military and strategic ally in the region. Morsi’s Islamic Brotherhood was outlawed by the Mubarak regime for decades.

Clinton emphasized the need for Egypt to adhere to its 1979 peace treaty with Israel, and offered U.S. support to help Cairo regain control of the increasingly lawless Sinai Peninsula — a major security concern for Israel, Reuters reported. She is slated to fly to Israel from Egypt.

In Egypt, Clinton will highlight a number of initiatives the United States is taking to bolster the Egyptian economy, which has structural problems from the past three decades under the Mubarak regime and suffered a hit to key industries including tourism amid political turmoil.

The Obama administration has promised a billions dollars in support of the new Egyptian government when it was formed.

Clinton was expected to begin talking about the details of that support package and debt relief — providing funds that can go into job-creating programs and training, especially focused on Egypt's young people, a senior U.S. official said.

In addition, Clinton was planning to announce the head of a new U.S. Egypt Enterprise Fund, initially capitalized at $60 million to invest in the country and speak to the Egyptian leadership about the steps they need to take to tap into another $250 million U.S. fund earmarked for small and medium-sized enterprises.

NBC News, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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