The United States will not seek to close a free agreement with Egypt this year because the "timing" is not right, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said before a trip to Middle East that includes a first stop in Egypt.
It was widely believed Washington, which had planned to reach the agreement with the government of President Hosni Mubarak by year's end, had switched course after what it saw as backsliding on Egyptian promises to reform its political system.
There was widespread police-inspired violence during parliamentary elections late last year as the government sought openly to block opposition voters from reaching the polls. Nearly a dozen people were killed in the election violence.
Rice, however, denied the trade pact was being withheld to penalize the Egyptian government.
"It's not a matter of punishment. It's just a matter of the timing being not quite right," Rice said, according to the transcript of an interview she gave Friday to Arab journalists in Washington.
"It's important that we have the right atmosphere for free trade agreements because they have to, of course, go through Congress," Rice said.