CAIRO (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discussed Egypt's turbulent democratic transition with the country's top general on Sunday as the military wrestles for influence with a newly elected president.
The low-key, hour-long meeting with Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi came a day after she met Islamist President Mohamed Mursi, whose powers were clipped by the military days before he took office following the country's first free leadership vote.
Mursi fired back by recalling the Islamist-dominated parliament that the army leadership had disbanded after a court declared it void, deepening the stand-off before the new leader even had time to form a government.
The result has been acute political uncertainty as the various power centres try to find a way to get along in a country that still has no permanent constitution, parliament or government more than a year after the downfall of Hosni Mubarak.
Mursi is the first Egyptian president not to hail from the military since 1952. The generals have said many times they had no desire to remain in day-to-day government and would limit their role to one of national security.
What that means in practice will be determined by the working relationship Mursi and his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood are trying to forge with an old political establishment that still holds sway over much of government.
It will also be decided by a new constitution setting out Mursi's powers. The document has been caught up in months of wrangling and the military has given itself an effective veto over the final draft.
Clinton said after meeting Mursi on Saturday that her meeting with Tantawi would cover the army's return to a "purely national security role" as well as the issue of parliament.
The meeting was lower profile than her discussions with Mursi, in line with protocol for such visits - Tantawi is no longer Egypt's effective head of state. And the State Department was very cautious on what was discussed during the encounter.
The United States, which provides its long-standing ally with $1.3 billion in military aid per year, making it one of Egypt's biggest donors, has worked hard not to take sides in the latest political stand-off.
According to a U.S. official travelling with Clinton, she spoke of Egypt's political evolution, while Tantawi told her what Egypt needed most right now was help overcoming its economic problems.
Egypt risks a balance of payments and budget crisis unless it can secure billions of dollars from overseas donors, but most of the aid has been delayed by the political wrangling.
In a brief emailed comment, the official said they also touched on regional security issues such as the increasingly lawless Sinai region and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
After meeting Clinton, Tantawi said the army would keep a role in "protecting" Egypt but said it respected the presidency.
"The armed forces and the army council respects legislative and executive authorities," he said in a speech to troops in the city of Ismailia. "The armed forces would not allow anyone to discourage it from its role in protecting Egypt and its people."
Ties between Cairo and Washington were strained this year when Egyptian judicial police raided the offices of several U.S.-backed non-governmental organisations on suspicion of illegal foreign funding and put several Americans on trial as a result.
The rare spat ended when Egyptian authorities allowed the U.S. citizens and other foreign workers to leave the country.
Making her first visit to Egypt since Mursi's inauguration, Clinton appeared to recognise there were limits to what, if anything, Washington can do to influence events in Cairo and stressed that it was up to Egyptians to chart their future.
However, she spoke on Saturday of Mursi's success hinging in part on asserting "the full authority of the presidency".
"They discussed the political transition and the SCAF's ongoing dialogue with President Mursi," the U.S. official wrote of Sunday's meeting, re ferring to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military council that took over from Mubarak when he was ousted in February last year, the culmination of an 18-day street revolt driven by anger at poverty and corruption.
"Tantawi stressed that this is what Egyptians need most now - help getting the economy back on track," the U.S. official said.
After seeing Tantawi, Clinton met a group of Egyptian entrepreneurs and then was scheduled to hold separate talks with women and Christians, both groups that fear their rights may be curtailed under a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government.
The U.S. official said that in her talks with Tantawi, Clinton "stressed the importance of protecting the rights of all Egyptians, including women and minorities".
Several hundred protesters - relatively few by recent Egyptian standards - chanted anti-U.S. and anti-Islamist slogans outside Clinton's hotel on Saturday night. Some said the United States had backed the Brotherhood's rise to power.
In her meetings with civil society groups, notably members of Christian communities, Clinton sought to dispel the idea.
"She wanted, in very, very clear terms, particularly with the Christian group this morning, to dispel that notion and to make clear that only Egyptians can choose their leaders, that we have not supported any candidate, any party, and we will not," a senior U.S. official told reporters.
Clinton was due to travel then to Alexandria for a flag raising ceremony at a reopened U.S. Consulate in the Mediterranean port city and then to Jerusalem for talks on Israeli-Palestinian peace before returning to Washington.
(Editing by Tom Pfeiffer and Alison Williams)