Trump’s victory likely to improve US-Egyptian ties
WASHINGTON - Tellingly, reportedly the first foreign leader to congratulate US President-elect Donald Trump was Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Although the two had met only once, they seem to share a similar outlook about threats facing Egypt, the Middle East and the larger international community.
From Sisi’s perspective, Trump represents the anti-Barack Obama and the anti-Hillary Clinton. Much of the hostility towards these leading Democrats stems from the time of Muslim Brotherhood leader Muhammad Morsi’s election as Egyptian president in 2012 and the aftermath of his ouster from power in 2013.
In the summer of 2012, when it appeared that Morsi had won the presidential vote, the Egyptian military was reluctant to announce the winner; earlier, the ruling military council had issued a decree stripping the presidency of real power. Clinton, then US secretary of State, urged the Egyptian military to respect the outcome of the election and publicly declared that the military should return to a “purely national security role” — meaning it should go back to the barracks.
The following summer, Obama, as US president, criticised the severe crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood by Sisi, then Defence minister, and the security services and two months later suspended a large portion of US military aid to Egypt.
These statements and policies of Clinton and Obama fed conspiracy theories in Egypt that Washington supported the Brotherhood and aimed to weaken Egypt. Although Obama restored US military aid in March 2015, distrust in Cairo about US motives lingered. For its part, the Obama administration did not afford Sisi a White House visit because of his government’s arrest of dissidents, journalists and human rights activists.
Differing attitudes towards Egypt were evident when Clinton and Trump had separate meetings with Sisi during the opening session of the UN General Assembly in September in New York. Clinton, while praising counterterrorism cooperation with Egypt, emphasised the need for it to “respect… the rule of law and human rights” and raised the issue of an Egyptian-American non-governmental organisation leader under detention.
Trump, on the other hand, said his administration would be “a loyal friend, not simply an ally” and that he would support Egypt’s fight against “radical Islamic terrorism”. Trump pledged to support legislation in the US Congress that would designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation. (Obama has said he would veto such legislation.) Much to Sisi’s pleasure, Trump did not raise human rights issues in their talk.
Following the meeting, Trump praised Sisi as a “fantastic guy” who has taken a “tough approach” towards terrorists, “much different from” that of the Obama administration. When asked during a CNN interview about Trump’s threat to ban Muslims from entering the United States, Sisi dismissed it as merely campaign talk. “Actual government will be something different and will be subject to many factors,” Sisi said.
Trump and Sisi appear to share a similar benign view of Russia, particularly towards the Syrian crisis, which probably helped to cement their friendship. Egypt has avoided criticising Russia’s role in Syria, which has caused tensions with Saudi Arabia, and maintains relations with the Assad government out of concern that Islamist groups could emerge victorious in Syria if their power is not checked.
Trump avoided criticising Russia during his election campaign and said it “would be great” if Russia and the United States would fight the Islamic State (ISIS) together.
Though Sisi’s supporters in Egypt have praised Trump as being a “strong leader” who will more vigorously support Egypt’s anti-terrorism campaign, his detractors raised alarms. Egyptians who remain sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood denounced Trump as a “hater of Islam and Muslims”.
There is concern among Egyptian human rights and democracy activists that Trump will neglect Egypt’s human rights record. Longtime activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim said he fears there will be “no defenders” of human rights in the Trump White House.
Indeed, Sisi might even be invited to the White House in the early months of the Trump administration as a way for the new US president to signal support for tough, authoritarian leaders in their fight against ISIS and like-minded groups.
While an embrace of Sisi fits Trump’s worldview, particularly with regards to terrorism, there may be downsides. Giving Sisi carte blanche to clamp down on his critics is likely to build more societal pressures for a political upheaval, especially now that Egypt is undertaking painful economic reforms to conform to its deal with the International Monetary Fund.
Instead of the safety-valve approach — allowing the opposition to let off political steam — the policy of indulgence could be counterproductive for Egypt’s long-term stability.