WASHINGTON: United States President Donald Trump warmly welcomed his Egyptian counterpart to the White House on Monday in a visit that’s meant to signal a shift in the US approach to Egypt, but could leave both Trump and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi disappointed.
Trump emphasized Washington’s support for Cairo. “We are very much behind Egypt and the people of Egypt,” Trump said, speaking in the Oval Office with Sisi at his side. “I look forward to a very long and strong relationship.”
Both leaders are looking to use the first visit by an Egyptian leader to the White House in seven years to make a point. Trump is looking to appear statesmanlike and focus ties on building a partnership for his top foreign policy priority of fighting terrorism. Like Sisi, Trump is also looking to move past the chill in US-Egypt relations during the Obama administration and demonstrate a warm partnership.
Sisi, a former general and the kind of strongman leader Trump admires, wants more than just goodwill, though. He is coming to the White House in hopes of getting the US to reinstate or perhaps boost levels of aid, according to experts and officials. But the Egyptian leader may be let down, as the Trump administration has made clear that, outside of Israel, it will sharply cut foreign aid.
“In terms of optics, this is a win for Cairo and for the White House,” said Oren Kessler, the deputy director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “It lets President Trump appear statesmanlike and receive a leader who is positively inclined toward him. In terms of actual substance, my sense is the Egyptian government may be a bit disappointed in terms of what it gets.”
Michele Dunne, director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, warns that Trump may be in for disappointment as well as he looks to Sisi for help in the Middle East and in the fight against terrorism.
“There are real limitations to how useful Egypt can be on terrorism that are directly due to instability and polarization inside of Egypt,” Dunne said.
The two leaders are expected to focus on terrorism and ISIS, and particularly its presence in the Sinai Peninsula, which separates Israel and Egypt. Cairo’s increasingly close security relationship with Israel will be another issue for discussion. The two countries cooperate on fighting ISIS in the Sinai and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Trump, who first met Sisi on the sidelines of a United Nations meeting in 2016, praised the Egyptian leader as “fantastic guy,” declaring that his “tough approach” had “gotten the terrorists out.”
For his part, Sisi was the first foreign leader to congratulate Trump on his election victory and has told the media that there’s “no doubt” he’ll be a strong leader.
“Since we met last September, I’ve had a deep appreciation and admiration of your unique personality, especially as you are standing very strong in counter terrorism field,” Sisi said through a translator.
“You will find Egypt and myself always behind you in this — in bringing about an effective strategy in counter terrorism,” Sisi said, adding, “I’m quite confident you will be able to bring a solution to this issue.”
Egypt’s precarious economy will be on the table, as well as an Egyptian request for more aid. Cairo already receives $1.3 billion in annual US military aid. With the advent of the new US administration, Egyptian officials in Washington have been floating aid numbers they’d like to see, said Eric Trager, an Egypt expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
In particular, Sisi is looking to reinstate a practice known as cash-flow financing that the Obama administration cut in 2015, which allowed Egypt to buy military hardware on credit as much as a decade in advance.
“This will be difficult for President Trump to meet,” Trager said. Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute, added: “Egypt wants assistance, but our cupboard is bare.”
A Trump administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the President will reaffirm the US commitment to Egypt’s security and that the US will “maintain a strong and sufficient level of support to Egypt.”
Noting that current US foreign military financing for Egypt stands at $1.3 billion a year, the official said “that’s a very large amount.”
“We’ll discuss with Egypt whether cash-flow financing is something they need or not, but it is also something that would be a process of our internal budget discussions that are ongoing,” the official said. “So we can’t really get ahead of the budget planning now.”
Dunne, of the Carnegie Endowment, said that repression is a major reason why Sisi will not prove to be the ally against terrorism that Trump hopes and why the administration’s reluctance to call Egypt out for human rights abuses might eventually change.
“Egypt under Sisi is mass producing jihadis,” Dunne said, using the Arabic term for an Islamic militant, “because of human rights abuses, political respression and economic mismanagement that has led to very high youth unemployment.” The White House said it will raise these issues privately, she said.
And David Schenker, the Washington Institute’s director on Arab Politics, notes that the US expectation that American military assistance will be geared to fighting terrorism may be misplaced, simply because Cairo isn’t making the kind of military purchases that actually work in a fight against insurgent groups.
“The Egyptian military continues to favor purchasing tanks, F-16s, and missiles with its FMF (foreign military financing) instead of equipment better suited for counterinsurgency and border-security operations,” Schenker said.