Mixed views in Cairo about Trump-Sisi summit
Cairo - Behind the warm welcome Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi received in Washington was US President Donald Trump’s desire to redress decisions by the previous US administration, including the inability to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, eradicate the Islamic State (ISIS) and maintain an active presence in the Middle East, Egyptian analysts said.
The US openness on Cairo, they said, baffles human rights groups and emboldens Sisi into more alleged human rights violations.
“At least, we have in the White House now a president ready to address important problems in the Middle East,” said Abdel Monem Said, the former director of local think-tank al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “In doing this, he picks up the most important players in the region, of which Egypt is one.”
When he was received by Trump on April 3, Sisi became the first Egyptian president to be welcomed at the White House in eight years. Sisi was shunned by former President Barack Obama, who viewed his move from the ranks of the military to the presidential palace as a military coup against Islamist President Muhammad Morsi.
Apart from overlooking Sisi, Obama’s administration also cut one-quarter of the $1.3 billion the United States gives Egypt in annual aid, held back arms needed for Egypt’s fight against the ISIS branch in Sinai and froze military cooperation with its army.
Trump is following a different course. He rolled out the red carpet for the Egyptian leader, expressed interest in supporting him and pledged to increase military cooperation.
The two men met in New York in September 2016 when Trump was running for president. Following this meeting with Sisi, Trump said there was “chemistry” between them. Sisi said Trump would make a “strong leader.” Following their April 3 meeting, Trump said he hoped Sisi would continue to admire him.
This is less about personal admiration and more about two men striving to end Middle East turmoil, political analysts in Cairo said.
“Sisi believes that resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the first step to ending this turmoil,” said Tarek Fahmi, a political science professor from Cairo University. “Trump, too, is ready to take action on this file.”
This readiness was demonstrated by Trump at his news conference with Sisi when he said the United States would work with Egypt to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
His resolve was expressed more clearly two days later when he met with Jordanian King Abdullah II.
This seems to be part of a larger plan by Trump to fix the “mess” he said he inherited from his predecessor.
The plan, diplomatic sources in Cairo said, was for Sisi and King Abdullah to lead the next Arab peace overture to Israel. The sources failed to specify whether it was about pushing forward with the 2002 Arab peace initiative that was reconfirmed at the Arab summit in March or a new peace formula.
In his capacity as the president of the Arab summit, King Abdullah was expected to rally renewed support for the 2002 initiative that calls for founding a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Sisi has started an ambitious bid to bring the Palestinians and the Israelis together. He sent his foreign minister to Tel Aviv in July 2016 and, Israeli media said, tried to commit Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to a peace plan presented by former US Secretary of State John Kerry in March 2016.
Sisi’s close links with Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his improving ties with Palestinian faction Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, qualify him to play a decisive role in the aspired Middle East peace project, Said said.
“Egypt has been the strongest Arab backer of the Palestinians since 1948,” he said. “It has close links with most Palestinian factions, which means that it can convince the Palestinians to sit down with the Israelis.”
Egypt in 1979 became the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel.
For Sisi, a committed Trump is more than just a boon to regional peace. The Egyptian president is fighting several conflicts at home. He has been battling ISIS in Sinai for three years. The army is scoring successes against ISIS militants but Egypt is in need of intelligence support from the United States as well as military technology, military experts said.
Sisi’s government struggles to get the economy back on its feet following years of political and security unrest. Apart from borrowing $12 billion from the International Monetary Fund, Egypt floated the national currency in November to save foreign currency reserves from being depleted.
Trump can step in with a lifeline for Sisi, whose popularity has been adversely affected by rising commodity prices and growing poverty, Fahmi said.
“A positive approach to Egypt by the US administration will encourage US businessmen to come here,” Fahmi said. “This approach will also significantly facilitate Egypt’s relations with international financial institutions.”
Egyptian human rights campaigners say by not speaking out on the human rights record, Trump emboldens the Egyptian president to keep jailing opponents and hampering the causes of civil society activists.
“Thousands of people are in jail simply because they expressed different political views,” said rights advocate Gamal Eid. “Here we have the president of the world’s most important country telling Sisi that this is a marginal matter.”