CAIRO – After four years of tension with the United States, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi now has a fan in the White House and on Monday he meets President Donald Trump.
The American former reality television star and tycoon has made no secret of his admiration for the ex-army chief who overthrew his Islamist predecessor and cracked down on his supporters.
Mohamed Morsi’s ouster in 2013, a year after he had won Egypt’s first democratic election, and the ensuing crackdown on Islamists prompted then US president Barack Obama to suspend military aid to Cairo temporarily.
But when Sisi meets Trump on Monday during his first state visit to Washington, he will see a counterpart who better appreciates his “mission” to fight Islamists and jihadists, without Obama’s hand-wringing over human rights.
“As a matter of fact President-elect Trump has shown deep and great understanding of what is taking place in the region as a whole and what is taking place in Egypt,” Sisi, who met Trump in September before his election, said in an interview.
A senior White House official said Friday that Trump wants to “build on the strong connection the two presidents established” then.
Trump has been gushing about Sisi. “He’s a fantastic guy. Took control of Egypt, and he really took control of it,” he told Fox Business of the period after Morsi’s overthrow which saw hundreds of Islamist protesters killed and thousands detained. Over the past three years, Sisi has met a trickle of delegations from American think-tanks and other groups, drumming home the importance of supporting him.
“He made a passionate and convincing case for why all nations should stop working with Islamists,” said a member of one delegation who requested anonymity.
– Egypt trying to reassert itself –
Sisi often speaks of himself as though he were a Cassandra whose warnings go unheeded.
“We warned two years ago our European friends, the foreign fighters in Syria will return and commit terrorism in Europe,” he said during a 2016 visit by French President Francois Hollande.
Cairo is pleased by signals from Trump’s administration and Congress that they may consider blacklisting Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood movement, a move which also has its critics in Washington.
“America prepares to confront the Brotherhood,” read a banner headline in red in the official Al-Ahram newspaper.
“Beyond Sisi being thrilled that Trump replaced Obama, and the opportunity to turn a page, this is Egypt trying to reassert itself in a more central way to US Middle East strategy,” said Issandr El Amrani, the International Crisis Group’s North Africa director.
Egypt — one of two Arab countries to have a peace treaty with Israel — had traditionally played a central role in US regional alliances, in return receiving $1.3 billion in annual military aid.
Cairo has also mediated between Israel and the Palestinians.
Sisi’s office said he will broach the issue with Trump, who has confusingly suggested that he is fine with either a two-state or a one-state solution to the conflict.
Sisi had already made a goodwill gesture on that front in January, retracting a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements after a call from the then president-elect who opposed it. The resolution was reintroduced after objections by other Security Council members, and passed with the US abstaining.
“Egypt is one of the traditional pillars of stability in the Middle East and has been a reliable US partner for decades,” the White House official said on Friday.
Sisi’s trip comes ahead of Trump’s talks on Wednesday with King Abdullah II of Jordan and after a tentative invitation to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas to visit.
US Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt has been trying to build momentum for a deal that would be the ultimate achievement for a president who prides himself on his bargaining prowess. Although Sisi may be delighted about having Trump’s ear, he may yet be disappointed.
“The focus (for Trump) is on areas where Egypt has little relevance, like Iraq and Syria,” El Amrani said.
Egypt is part of the international coalition against the Islamic State group, but is bogged down fighting the jihadists’ franchise in the Sinai Peninsula, where they have killed hundreds of soldiers and policemen.
Western officials who requested anonymity say Egypt is primarily interested in advanced military hardware it believes Western countries are withholding. Cairo also wants conventional equipment that Washington believes is not useful for a counter-insurgency campaign.-AFP