The mood in Washington about Sisi is mixed
After being denied an official Washington visit by former president Barack Obama, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi received the respect he likely believes he deserves from meeting with US President Donald Trump at the White House.
Although Obama never labelled Sisi’s 2013 overthrow of former president Muhammad Morsi a coup, which would have legally required him to cut off US aid, he saw Sisi’s policies as unnecessarily harsh.
Bilateral relations improved somewhat after Obama restored full military aid to Egypt in March 2015, after having suspended much of it in October 2013, but he and Sisi never had a warm relationship.
Not so it seems with Trump. Following their meeting at the UN General Assembly last September, Trump and Sisi seem to have developed a close bond. Trump called Sisi a “fantastic guy” and the Egyptian president was the first foreign leader to congratulate Trump after his victory in November.
At their White House meeting on April 3rd, Trump repeated a similar phrase, saying Sisi has done a “fantastic job in a difficult situation” and that he would stand by him and the Egyptian people. Trump cryptically alluded to “some things” that they do not agree on but it was not clear whether Trump was referring to human rights or to the imprisonment of some dual Egyptian-American citizens or to the way Egypt has been conducting counterterrorism operations in the Sinai.
Publicly, at least, Trump did not raise human rights with Sisi, which must have pleased the Egyptian leader. An unnamed Trump administration official said there would be no “finger-wagging” by Trump on human rights as there was by previous administrations.
Sisi thanked Trump for the warm reception and praised the US president for “standing very strong” in countering “the evil ideology” of the Islamic State (ISIS) and similar groups. In their closed door session, Sisi was expected to update Trump on Egyptian military operations against the ISIS affiliate in the Sinai and probably other threats facing Egypt.
He also may have asked Trump for more military and economic assistance as a resumption of cash-flow financing that was halted by the Obama administration. However, given Trump’s general policy of reducing foreign aid worldwide, the same unnamed administration official said Sisi would likely be disappointed on the aid picture because “he is not going to get [more] aid”.
Trump may have asked Sisi to play an intermediary role between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, given Egypt’s good relations with both. The problem is that Sisi, despite his ties to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, is unlikely to buck the Arab League consensus for a two-state solution. Sisi might go through the motions to stay in Trump’s good graces but, until Netanyahu and Trump unequivocally support two states, such efforts will come to naught.
In contrast to his positive meeting with Trump, Sisi had a mixed reception during his meetings with members of Congress. Some in the House of Representatives, such as Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican and founder of the Friends of Egypt congressional caucus, unreservedly support Sisi. Rohrabacher has introduced legislation to restore cash-flow financing, boost economic aid and provide Egypt with a $10 billion loan guarantee.
Others, however, such as Ed Royce, the California Republican chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, were expected to raise human rights concerns with the Egyptian president.
In the Senate, Sisi had an even tougher audience. To coincide with Sisi’s visit, a bipartisan group of senators, including Marco Rubio (R-Florida), Ben Cardin (D-Maryland), Tim Kaine (D-Virginia), Todd Young (R-Indiana) and Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), introduced a resolution that called on Egyptian leaders to take steps “toward meaningful political and human rights reforms”, an end to the harassment of non-governmental organisations and independent media and the release of Aya Hijazi, a dual Egyptian-American citizen who has been imprisoned for more than two years for what many observers say are trumped-up charges.
In addition, two powerful Republican senators — John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — have been particularly critical of Sisi’s crackdown on NGOs and journalists. McCain is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and Graham heads the Senate subcommittee that has jurisdiction over foreign aid.
In December, McCain and Graham sharply criticised Egypt’s proposed law that was restrictive on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and urged Sisi to reject it (he has yet to sign it). They criticised Cairo for failing to resolve the cases of US and other foreign NGOs in Egypt that were repressed in late 2011, before Sisi was in office.
McCain and Graham have threatened to strengthen human rights conditions and democracy benchmarks on US assistance to Egypt if the NGO legislation is signed into law. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont has long favoured conditioning financial assistance to Egypt on democratic benchmarks.
So, while some members of the House want to boost aid to Cairo, many senators will resist doing so until they see discernible progress on human rights. When all is said and done in the legislative process, US aid to Egypt is likely to remain at current levels, signifying that, while Congress wants Egypt to succeed, it remains wary of Sisi’s policy of cracking down on his political opponents and civil society activists.