Sisi visits Washington to solidify new relationship
Washington - When Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi sits down with US President Donald Trump in Washington, it will mark the first formal meeting between the two countries’ heads of state since September 2010. Then, Hosni Mubarak and Barack Obama met in the context of Middle East peace talks. Obama did confer with Sisi in September 2014 but it was on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.
In his first two years in office, Obama met with Mubarak three times, including a visit to Cairo in 2009 just months after assuming office. However, when Egypt erupted in popular revolt in 2011, the Obama White House was caught by surprise, as its confused reaction demonstrated.
Ultimately, Obama sent envoys to Cairo to urge Mubarak to step down. After he did, Washington kept pressure on the interim military-led government to have elections, which it did in June 2012.
The winner of those elections, Muslim Brotherhood leader Muhammad Morsi, never met with Obama, although the US administration recognised him as Egypt’s legitimate president and tried to maintain as normal a relationship as possible.
When Morsi was ousted in July 2013 by the Egyptian military, led by Sisi, the Obama White House once again vacillated, refusing to label the event a “coup” — to have done so would have triggered a US law requiring all US aid to Egypt to cease — while delaying the delivery of military equipment to Cairo as a sign of displeasure.
The ensuing three years were among the most difficult in US-Egyptian relations since president Anwar Sadat’s historic pivot to Washington in the 1970s. Sisi’s supporters accused the Obama White House of favouring the Muslim Brotherhood and refusing to appreciate the renewed stability that the Sisi government had brought about.
Obama administration officials did not hesitate to criticise Sisi’s repressive policies while attempting to maintain a working relationship, especially with the Egyptian military.
It is no wonder that Sisi seemed to relish Trump’s surprise election victory last November and was one of the first foreign leaders to call and congratulate him. Trump immediately invited Sisi to Washington.
On the surface, a close Trump- Sisi relationship looks promising. Both leaders view Islamic extremism as a mortal threat, Trump has shown very little concern about human rights and democratisation issues and values military strength.
In testimony before the US Congress in March, US Army General Joseph Votel, head of the
US Central Command, said: “Foreign arms sales to allies shouldn’t be burdened with preconditions tied to human rights because they could damage military-to-military ties.” The words certainly must have been music to Sisi’s ears.
Indeed, the first official meeting between Sisi and Trump likely will go swimmingly. Expect mutual compliments, warm handshakes and lots of smiles. Each leader wants to send a message to his domestic audience, said Perry Cammack, a fellow in the Middle East Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Both want to show their domestic audiences that they are the ones who got the relationship back on track,” Cammack said. “Both will want to project [the meeting] as a win.”
For Trump, whose domestic policy challenges are piling up, there is an additional yearning for success. He wants to show that “I can do the foreign policy stuff”, Cammack said.
Cammack points out that the relationship involves “short-term games and long-term games”. In the short term, interests converge but in the long term, he said, “the underlying factors that led to tensions with Obama are still there”. For example, although Trump voices little concern about human rights issues, others in Washington, including prominent Republican senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, continue to criticise Egypt.
Trump demonstrated in his meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in March that he would not hesitate to question whether US military assistance to other countries is a “good deal” for the United States. It is hard to imagine that he will not at some point put Egypt’s annual $1.3 billion US military aid package on the chopping block.
One suggestion is that the Trump administration intends to turn Egypt’s military aid package into a loan. One can only imagine Cairo’s reaction, especially given that in 2016 the US Congress passed and Obama signed an agreement giving Israel $39 billion in military grants over the next ten years.
Sisi’s biggest immediate problem is the Egyptian economy. His government has undertaken bold reforms, including flotation of the Egyptian pound, and made some impressive infrastructure investments but serious challenges remain and it is hard to imagine what Trump may offer as support.
“The United States wants market access [to Egypt] for US companies,” said Hisham Fahmy, chief executive officer of the Washington-based American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt. And Egypt, Fahmy said, “wants more exports allowed to the United States”, especially citrus fruit and vegetables.
Given Trump’s “America first” philosophy, Cairo should not expect any favours.
So, while the rhetoric surrounding the Trump-Sisi meeting likely will be glowing, Cammack said, “we won’t really know where the relationship is going until the longer-term divergences become clear”.