Can the US-Egypt relationship reboot deliver results?
A new day has dawned with the state visit of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to Washington. On numerous issues, he and US President Donald Trump are on the same page. High on the list is their determination to combat extremist ideology and terrorism.
Judging by their body language, they are personally in sync. Many comparisons have been made between the offhand fashion in which German Chancellor Angela Merkel was treated during her recent White House visit, and the effusive welcome afforded to El-Sisi.
“We are very much behind President Sissi; he has done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation,” said Trump, before turning to his guest to say: “You have a great friend and ally in the United States, and in me.”
Trump has released Egypt from his predecessor’s icebox. Whereas the Obama administration welcomed Muslim Brotherhood leaders at the White House and State Department, Egypt’s head of state was persona non grata.
Worse, the country was subjected to punitive measures for respecting the will of tens of millions who took to the streets demanding then-President Muhammad Mursi’s resignation. “You left the Egyptians. You turned your back on the Egyptians and they won’t forget that,” was El-Sisi’s response. Barack Obama’s barely veiled hostility hurtled Cairo toward Moscow, and due to his ineptitude the Syrian window was opened for Russia to step in.
Now that the slate has been wiped clean, Egyptians I have spoken with are interested to see tangible outcomes from the detente. Nice words apart, what can they expect in terms of policy?
Three things head El-Sisi’s wish list. First, he seeks economic aid to bolster Egypt’s less-than-healthy economy. The jury is out on whether he will get financial assistance from an “America First” president who has vowed to cut foreign aid (with the exception of a $38 billion aid package for Israel) toward fulfilling his plan to rebuild the US military.
El-Sisi has yet to receive clarity on whether America’s $1.3 billion annual aid to Egypt will stand, but Trump may wield his influence on various international financial bodies to approve loans. That said, five Democratic members of Congress are bent on securing a bi-partisan resolution warning Egypt that US aid is conditional upon “progress on meaningful political reform, human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
Evidently, lawmakers lack understanding of Egypt’s dire situation. Democratic liberties can only flourish in a peaceful, secure environment. El-Sisi has stressed on more than one occasion that Egypt is committed to “upholding the values of democracy,” while cautioning that the country should not be seen through a Western lens due to “differences in domestic and regional conditions.”
What Trump would like to do is not always what he can do. His advisers have different opinions, and some of his decisions have been thwarted by Congress and the judiciary.
Linda S. Heard
Egypt is battling a terrorist group called “Sinai Province,” with allegiance to Daesh, in northern Sinai, one that boasted it had brought down a Russian passenger jet. Recently, the group has torched, beheaded and shot Coptic Christians, causing hundreds of families to flee their homes. Just days ago, a car bomb exploded in the city of Tanta, injuring 16. Egypt’s tourism industry has paid a heavy price, impacting foreign currency reserves.
Furthermore, the country’s long and porous border with Libya is vulnerable to Daesh infiltration. “We will fight Islamic State (Daesh) militants together,” was Trump’s message to El-Sisi. Egypt’s air force bombed Daesh in Libya in retaliation for its beheading of 21 Coptic Christians, and was “rewarded” with condemnation from the Obama White House. Trump will likely be more cooperative.
Secondly, El-Sisi would like the US to join Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in branding the Muslim Brotherhood “terrorist.” The Trump administration is believed to be considering this step amid warnings that doing so would trigger a violent backlash.
In January, Sen. Ted Cruz introduced two bills that, if passed, would see the Brotherhood and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps designated “foreign terrorist organizations.” Trump earlier expressed his intention to support the bills.
Meanwhile, the Brotherhood has launched a propaganda campaign, coordinated with US public relations and lobbying companies, to persuade Western audiences that it is inherently peaceful. Egyptian authorities have a library of videos that prove the contrary.
Lastly, both leaders have a keen interest in pursuing an Israel-Palestine peace deal, and have agreed to work on this together. El-Sisi sounded positive following their meeting. But given that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pursuing West Bank settlement expansion and has all but dumped the idea of a Palestinian state, such an agreement would not constitute “the deal of the century” but rather a miracle.
According to the Times of Israel, Netanyahu and Trump are scheming to persuade Egypt to consent to relinquish territory for a Palestinian state in northern Sinai. If so, they will never succeed. Neither Egypt nor the Palestinian Authority would agree.
For now there are smiles all around, but the strength of this budding friendship between Cairo and Washington will be sorely tested. What Trump would like to do is not always what he can do. His advisers have different opinions, and some of his decisions have been thwarted by Congress and the judiciary. Interesting times ahead.
• Linda S. Heard is an author and columnist specializing in Middle East affairs.