El-Sisi May Find Like Mind in Trump in Anti-Islamist Fight

  • Egyptian president will be first Arab leader to meet Trump
  • U.S. seen sidelining human rights talk in favor of security

Egyptian President El-Sisi to Visit White House

Egypt’s president beat all other world leaders to the punch when he became the first to call Donald Trump to congratulate him on his election.

Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi will log another first on Monday when he becomes the first Arab head of state to visit the Trump White House. The objective, the administration has said, is to rebuild relations strained during the Obama years by Egypt’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, whose 2013 ouster from power El-Sisi led.

For El-Sisi, a warm embrace by the new U.S. leader, who shares his antipathy toward political Islam, could provide the financial and military support he needs to revive his country’s economy and to restore its standing as a regional power broker. In addition to seeking to preserve the $1.3 billion to $1.5 billion in economic and military aid Egypt gets annually from Washington, he’ll be pushing the U.S. to declare Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, a move it’s considering, analysts said.

El-Sisi’s “main motive in relation to political Islam is saying they’re all terrorists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood,” Ziad Akl, senior researcher at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said in an interview. He and Trump are likely to “see eye-to-eye that there’s no political Islam that’s moderate or not moderate, and this will come down on the heads of the Brotherhood.”

The meeting between the two leaders comes at a critical time for El-Sisi. Months after currency exchange restrictions were lifted, annual inflation has shot up to over 30 percent and the pound’s value has halved against the dollar. The budget deficit is one of the highest in the Middle East. Islamist militants haven’t been quashed by an intensified campaign against them.

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Support from Trump, including an affirmation of Egypt’s Middle East standing, would provide El-Sisi’s policies with a strong measure of validation domestically and regionally, said Eric Trager, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Warm Embrace

El-Sisi “will finally get the big hug that he has wanted from Washington” since the 2013 overthrow of President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood, Trager said.

Presidential spokesman Alaa Youssef said in comments carried in the state-run Ahram newspaper Monday that the visit affords El-Sisi the chance to lay out for the Trump administration the reality of the situation in Egypt.

Trump will also meet this week with King Abdullah II of Jordan, while Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited the White House in March. The talks with the Jordanian monarch are expected to focus on other regional issues, including Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, that El-Sisi is also expected to raise.

Egyptians have toppled two presidents since 2011, so ensuring social stability in his impoverished country at a time of deepening economic need is a prime concern for El-Sisi, even as his government battles a militant threat in the north Sinai Peninsula. As he juggles both challenges, he’s argued that security takes precedence over a commitment to human rights.

Trump’s administration says it is taking a different approach to Egypt’s human rights record than the Obama administration, which publicly expressed its displeasure and stopped letting Cairo buy weapons on credit. While human rights will be a priority in discussions with Egypt, the new White House will handle the matter in a private, more discreet way, according to a U.S. official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity ahead of the visit.

El-Sisi will most probably find that Trump “will not bother Egypt on human rights and democratization issues,” Hani Sabra, head of the Eurasia Group’s Middle East and North Africa practice, wrote in a report.

“Trump views Sisi as the type of Arab Muslim leader that shares his nationalist worldview and broad based anti-Islamism,” he said. “In addition, Trump probably believes that Egypt can be a stronger partner to the U.S in the region.”

Sweeping Crackdown

El-Sisi oversaw, who served as defense minister under Islamist President Mohamed Mursi, oversaw a sweeping crackdown against the Brotherhood after his ouster. Hundreds of Islamists have been killed, thousands more have been jailed and the movement has been declared a terrorist organization. The campaign against the Brotherhood later widened to include activists and other dissenters.

Even if El-Sisi is not successful in securing on paper that the Brotherhood are terrorists, it’s the “behind-the-scenes politicking that is more important than an official statement from the White House that the Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist group,” the Ahram Center’s Akl said.

While the Trump administration had earlier indicated an interest in a similar designation for the group, that move may have been complicated by the firing of a key advocate, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, Sabra said. Flynn was “probably more amenable” to it than his successor, Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, he said.

With Trump questioning U.S. outlays on foreign aid, the size of Egypt’s annual share -- a reward for its 1979 peace treaty with Israel -- will be a central issue for El-Sisi. Any cutback would be especially painful at this time, when the effects of the economic reforms are still hitting hard.

The White House said in the briefing that it expects military and civilian support for Egypt will continue, without clarifying whether the level would remain the same. While a budgeting process is ongoing, “we are still going to maintain a strong and sufficient level of support,” the unidentified official said.

— With assistance by Ahmed Feteha

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