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Nov 11, 1:40 PM EST

Largest US business delegation ever visits Egypt despite criticism of country's rights record

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CAIRO (AP) -- Representatives from over 60 U.S. companies wrapped up Tuesday a two-day visit to Egypt described as the largest such delegation in history that aimed to explore potential businesses to boost the country's ailing economy. But critics say the visit strikes the wrong tone amid a government crackdown on freedoms.

Delegates to the conference, organized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, stayed clear of politics. During a two-hour meeting with President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, they listened to his vision for improving the economy and the pressures he faces from a disgruntled and demanding population.

The delegation includes a personal envoy from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Ambassador David Thorne. Ahead of the visit, Kerry said a critical component of Egypt's success is economic growth driven by policy reform, a message the delegation will deliver to Egyptian authorities.

The visit coincided with an ultimatum by authorities given to civil groups to register under a restrictive law that was drafted under the regime of Hosni Mubarak, or face shutdown and prosecution.

The deadline passed with authorities taking no immediate action. The groups say the deadline still hangs over their head, and is a threat to their work which deals mostly with government violations and crackdown.

"Egypt is suffering the most ruthless crackdown in decades but John Kerry is busy promoting US business there," Kenneth Roth, executive director of the New-York based Human Rights Watch, wrote on Twitter ahead of the visit. His organization closed its offices in Cairo earlier this year, citing concerns over the crackdown, after failing to register.

Egyptian authorities have also rounded up thousands of protesters and supporters of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, who was ousted last year by the military led by el-Sissi, after popular protests accusing him of monopolizing power.

"We all recognize that this country has been through turmoil and we recognize that the economy is challenged," said Gregori Lebedev, a senior member of the Board of the Directors of the Chamber of Commerce and co-leader of the delegation. "I think the size of the delegation reflects the fact there was a prospect of change and reform and let's go see for ourselves what those prospects are because we would like to be a part of that solution if we can and we certainly want to be part of (Egypt's) long term growth."

Lebedev and others in the conference rebuffed the criticism. "We know that prosperous economies are good for citizens wherever you are in the world," Lebedev told The Associated Press. "So anything that the American business community can do to stimulate a challenged economy will do nothing but benefit Egyptian citizens at large."

During the delegation's meeting with el-Sissi Monday, Lebedev said it was clear that the new government is not "whitewashing" the country's myriad problems, commending the new energy he said characterized the economic team picked by the president.

"I think people have to give some amount of credit for an otherwise successful individual (el-Sissi) to take on challenges that most people would turn away from," he said.

Khush Choksy, the vice president of the U.S. chamber of commerce for Middle East affairs, said the timing of the visit couldn't have been better to seize on positive signals the government has sent to the business community.

"Business likes to get in the act early," he said, adding that visit hopes to boost American investment in Egypt, which now stands at over $10 billion, at a time when its government took drastic and much awaited economic reforms such as cutting fuel subsidies.

El-Sissi has also launched a number of mega-projects aimed at jumpstarting the economy and providing employment. Such projects, as well as Egyptian interest in investing in them, Choksy said, have triggered interests of private American businesses. He said the chamber plans to host another regional investment conference in Egypt next spring.

For Egyptian businessmen, the conference is an opportunity to commit the government to a more business friendly environment.

"One of the recommendations (to the government) will be to be very transparent, to be very candid about what laws are going to be changed and to be candid that nothing will be taken retroactive on any of the decisions taken by the government," Hisham Fahmy, head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt, told AP.

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