Sisi’s Washington visit reflects Trump’s ‘transactional approach’
Washington - Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s visit to Washington has highlighted the “transactional approach” of the Trump administration’s policy in the Middle East, analysts said.
US President Donald Trump showered his guest with praise, describing him as a strong leader and a staunch US ally in a dangerous corner of the world. “I just want to let everybody know in case there was any doubt that we are very much behind President Sisi,” Trump said. “He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation.”
Trump also praised King Abdullah II of Jordan, another key US ally in the Middle East, during a separate meeting at the White House. The king’s second meeting with Trump since the president took office in January focused on ways to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and on the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), with Trump expressing admiration for King Abdullah’s role. “He knows how to fight,” Trump said.
King Abdullah thanked Trump for US support for Jordan, which receives about $1 billion in US aid per year. The United States played a “key role” in helping Jordan provide for more than 600,000 Syrian refugees, Abdullah said, according to the Jordan Times. The refugee issue was a “tremendous burden on our country”, he said.
Trump’s meetings were shortly before he ordered a missile strike on a Syrian airfield in retaliation for a suspected chemical attack by Syrian government forces. “It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” Trump said.
Both King Abdullah and Sisi were given the red-carpet treatment by Trump. News reports highlighted that the president warmly shook Sisi’s hand in front of the cameras during their meeting in the Oval Office, a gesture the US president pointedly avoided during a recent visit by Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Trump did not address Egypt’s human rights record in his public statements during the Sisi visit but media reports quoted US officials as saying the issue would be addressed discreetly during the talks.
A US State Department report on the human rights situation in Egypt said security forces had used “killings and torture”. Other allegations included “the excessive use of preventative custody and pretrial detention, the use of military courts to try civilians, trials involving hundreds of defendants in which authorities did not present evidence on an individual basis, and arrests conducted without warrants or judicial orders”.
Under Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, US-Egyptian relations cooled considerably, in part because Washington criticised Cairo’s human rights record.
The invitation to Sisi to visit so early in Trump’s administration was a very visible sign of the new course the United States has decided to take. Obama had refused to extend an invitation to the Egyptian leader, who became president a year after the ousting of Muhammad Morsi, a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood, as president in 2013.
Trump critics said he was determined to ignore Egypt’s human rights record. US Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, said in a statement that Sisi’s government had conducted “one of the widest arrest campaigns in the country’s modern history” and a crackdown on civil society that “has left it on the verge of collapse”.
Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said Trump’s invitation to Sisi at a time when “tens of thousands of Egyptians rot in jail and when torture is again the order of the day is a strange way to build a stable strategic relationship”.
Politico, a Washington publication, reported that relatives of US victims of Egypt’s security forces had written to the White House asking Trump to use his meeting with Sisi to demand the release of American citizens who had been “unjustly detained” in Egypt. The families said the White House ignored their letter, Politico reported. In an editorial, the New York Times accused Trump of “not just welcoming but celebrating one of the most authoritarian leaders in the Middle East”. The editorial called Sisi an “enemy of human rights”.
For the Trump administration, that kind of criticism seems beside the point. It is concentrating on building ties with Middle East countries that are of crucial importance in the fight against Islamist militants. The Trump administration does not follow Obama’s stance that respect for human rights and for principles of good governance is a tool in the fight against terrorism, said Owen Daniels of the Atlantic Council in Washington. “A transactional approach is gaining traction,” Daniels said.
He said the Sisi visit helped clarify Trump’s line on Middle Eastern affairs that appeared to stress the importance of regional partners in the fight against extremism. “That is a different approach to the same problem [faced by the Obama administration] and goes a little bit deeper than style,” he said.
Other countries in the region were likely to conclude that the traditional policy followed by past US administrations with its highlight on human rights was no longer Washington’s top priority, Daniels added. “In the worst case, they may justify actions against civil society with security forces” and hope to find more understanding in Washington than before, he said.
There was no official comment about the future of US financial and military aid for Egypt, which received $1.3 billion last year. The White House statement stressed the United States’ commitment “to Egypt’s security, stability and prosperity” and said Trump had “pledged continued support to Egypt’s ongoing fight against terrorism and Egypt’s historic economic reform programme”. The statement, however, did not include a firm commitment to keep US payments at the current level.
Trump has proposed drastic cuts in foreign aid and US State Department budgets but it is unclear whether to what extent payments to Middle East partners Egypt and Jordan will be affected.