Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s visit to the White House on Monday [3 April] will be the first by an Egyptian head of state since 2009 — an eon in his country’s turbulent political life. Over the past six years, Egypt has seen a pro-democracy uprising topple a dictator, elected the Muslim Brotherhood to power and endured a counterrevolution that brutally swept out the Islamists and led to Sissi, a former general, installing himself in office. (The toppled dictator, Hosni Mubarak, was recently released from prison.)
President Trump’s embrace of the “America First” mantra signaled a huge shift in Washington’s diplomatic posture. Relations between the U.S. and its partners are now framed in transactional terms, and little lip service is paid to human rights or the rule of law. But while Trump has mostly complained about how the rest of the world “rips off” the United States, he has consistently singled out Sissi for praise.
It’s easy to understand why Sissi appeals to Trump. Here is a classic Middle East strongman who talks tough on radical Islam and champions stability in a region beset by chaos. In a 2015 speech at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, a venerable center of Sunni Islam, Sissi called for “a religious revolution” within Islam to confront extremists. It won plaudits from a host of Republican presidential candidates then on the campaign trail, including Trump.
Last August, Trump hailed Sissi as someone who recognizes “this ideology of death that must be extinguished.” The two met for the first time in New York last September, and Trump conveyed that his administration would “be a loyal friend, not simply an ally” to Sissi’s Egypt. The Egyptian president was the first foreign leader to congratulate Trump after his November election victory.
This is all a sharp change from the Obama Administration, which soured on Sissi as he carried out a ruthless crackdown on Islamists and dissidents. As my colleagues report, “the State Department’s human rights report accuses Sissi’s government of stifling basic freedoms and enforcing its repression through torture, the disappearances of critics, and arbitrary arrests and killings.” Tens of thousands of people now languish in jail, and American citizens number among the many swept up by Sissi’s police state. They include all sorts of opposition dissidents, human rights advocates and liberals, not just Islamists.
“Inviting Sissi for an official visit to Washington as 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,” said Sarah Margon, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, in a statement.
But there’s little chance those concerns will get an airing on Monday. Administration officials have cast the meeting as a chance to “reboot” ties between Washington and Cairo and talk counterterrorism. Sissi’s government faces an entrenched insurgency in the Sinai peninsula, which includes battles against an Islamic State affiliate.
Egyptian officials will seek assurances that the U.S. will continue and expand its military aid and other investments. It’s also likely they’ll push privately for the United States to designate the Muslim Brotherhood — once Egypt’s largest political party — as a terrorist organization, a long-mooted move that has been criticized by a consensus of Washington-based Middle East experts and counterterrorism analysts.
While Sissi has much to gain from the Trump administration, Eric Trager of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says the White House ought to recognize it also has a strong hand to play. For example, Trump should press Sissi on Egypt’s recent cooperation with Russia.
“Mr. Trump’s best chance to cut a ‘good deal’ with Mr. Sissi may be on Monday, when the Egyptian leader receives the Washington welcome he has long desired,” wrote Trager in the Wall Street Journal. “But if Mr. Sissi pockets that victory without conceding anything on his country’s deepening relationship with Russia, prosecution of Americans or aid priorities, Mr. Trump will have wasted Washington’s best hand in years.”
Of course, previous American presidents have had their own tangled dealings with Egypt, a longtime American military ally and recipient of tens of billions of dollars in military aid. After Sissi came to power in a 2013 coup, the Obama administration only briefly suspended weapons shipments; military aid was temporarily capped, not canceled. Still, it did speak out on Sissi’s alleged violations of human rights and wrongful imprisonment of activists
Now the White House will not even offer critical words, and Trump’s victory has deepened the fears and anxieties of Sissi’s opponents in Egypt.
“It’s going to get harder, a lot harder, for everyone,” said Wael Eskandar, a noted leftist journalist and blogger, in an interview with BuzzFeed. “The danger of Trump is not in the actions he takes but in the rhetoric he spreads and the people that are emboldened by that rhetoric.”
Other problems are also looming. Last month, the government cut subsidies for bread, a move mandated by the International Monetary Fund. As prices rose, bread riots hit a number of major cities. Zeinab Abul-Magd, an academic at Oberlin College, pointed to how the Egyptian military establishment, which controls large chunks of the economy, has managed to thrive amid Egypt’s fiscal troubles.
“The riots reveal that, underneath this tranquility, a war is raging between the country’s domineering army and its civilian poor,” wrote Abul-Magd. “The stability of Egypt’s military regime is not guaranteed to last.” Even if it doesn’t care about human rights or democracy abroad, that’s a warning the Trump Adminstration would do well to heed.
Source: The Washington Post
By: Ishaan Tharoor
3 April 2017