Egypt's authoritarian-minded president gets a warm White House welcome

Los Angeles Times

President Trump pledged “strong backing” for one of the United States’ most important and controversial Arab allies, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi, as the two held private White House meetings Monday at the start of a week of high-stakes international diplomacy.

“We agree on so many things,” Trump said of Sisi as the two men met in the Oval Office and shook hands.

Sisi, Trump said, has "done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation. We are very much behind Egypt and the people of Egypt.”

“You have a great friend and ally in the United States and in me,” Trump told Sisi.

Sisi, whose government has been accused of killing, jailing or torturing tens of thousands of opponents, is the first Egyptian head of state to visit the White House since 2009.

Responding to Trump through an interpreter, Sisi said he admired the U.S. president’s “unique personality” and praised Trump for fighting “this evil ideology,” an allusion to Islamist-inspired terrorism.

In sharp contrast to the Obama administration, which kept its distance from Sisi and never invited him to Washington, Trump had not been expected to raise critical issues such as human rights, the president’s aides said. Instead, the daylong session was aimed at “rebooting” a bilateral relationship often strained in the past, a senior administration official said. Trump allowed numerous photo ops throughout his day with Sisi.

At $1.3 billion a year, Egypt is the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, after Israel. In exchange, Egypt is one of the few Arab countries to maintain diplomatic ties with Israel and serves as a backstop control over the Gaza Strip.

Planned budget cuts that would gut foreign aid may put some of Egypt’s funding in danger, but administration officials said the “security” of the Arab world’s most populous country will not be threatened.

Sisi is also seeking to have the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement that dates to 1928, designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization. In 2013, Sisi, as commander of the military, overthrew Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, who was a Muslim Brotherhood leader. The group has since been outlawed in Egypt, but many human rights organizations and longtime regional observers do not consider it to be a radical advocate of terrorism.

Yet evoking the fight against Islamist-inspired terrorism seemed to be sufficient to win Trump’s support.

“President Trump aims to reaffirm the deep and abiding U.S. commitment to Egypt’s security, stability and prosperity,” the administration official said, briefing reporters before Monday’s meetings on condition that he not be named, a common practice in government. “We are going to maintain a strong and sufficient level of support to Egypt and Jordan,” the official added.

Sisi’s visit kicked off a consequential foreign-policy week for the Trump administration. Jordan’s King Abdullah II goes to the White House on Wednesday, followed by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s two-day summit with Trump at his resort in Florida, a meeting that likely will be the businessman and former reality TV celebrity’s most complex diplomatic challenge yet.

Even before Monday, the Trump administration had unusually kind words for Sisi, a heavy-handed strongman who won election in 2014 with 93 percent of the vote after leading a bloody crackdown on Islamic and other opponents.

Trump has cited Sisi’s “courage” in fighting Islamic State, the Sunni Muslim terrorist group that has made inroads in Sinai and other parts of Egypt and killed dozens of Egyptians, including Coptic Christians, in attacks.

In 2013, the Obama administration suspended the $1.3 billion aid package after the Sisi-led Egyptian military ousted Morsi and embarked on a broad crackdown against perceived domestic opponents.

But the Trump administration has indicated human rights will not be a public priority. The senior official said it was “most effective” to handle such issues “in a private, more discreet way.”

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer echoed that stance Monday, as the Trump-Sisi meeting was underway, when pressed by reporters on the lack of a public White House condemnation of Egypt’s human rights record.

“We understand the concern, and I think those are the kind of things that I believe progress is made privately,” Spicer said.

He hinted that what he called the “new day in the relationship between Egypt and the United States” was not free of blemishes. “It was a candid dialogue during which they discussed both areas of cooperation and of concern,” he told reporters.

Human rights advocates in the U.S. and abroad were appalled.

“Inviting [Sisi] 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, Washington director at Human Rights Watch.

Sisi has presided over “near-total impunity for abuses by the military and security forces” and restrictions on civil and political rights, she said, a heavy blow to hopes of liberalization after the so-called Arab Spring uprisings and the ouster of longtime Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

Egypt is also holding an American citizen, Aya Hijazi, in prison on what supporters say are trumped-up charges. She was arrested in 2014 for setting up a nongovernmental organization in Cairo to aid street children. Many such groups promote democracy and human rights, and the Sisi government regards them as subversive.

President Obama restored the military aid package, which included Cairo’s purchase of a dozen F-16 fighter jets, in early 2015 as he sought support from the region’s Sunni leaders for the U.S.-brokered nuclear deal between world powers and Iran.

However, the Obama government slated for 2018 an end to the so-called cash-flow financing system, which allows Egypt to place advance orders for expensive U.S. weaponry. Trump officials said they were prepared to reexamine ending cash-flow financing in their conversations with Sisi and his delegation.

Ahead of Sisi’s arrival at the White House, Secret Service officers cleared Lafayette Park, across the street, of demonstrators.

Sisi may also have pressed Trump on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Egypt, which, like Jordan, has a peace treaty with Israel, was alarmed by the administration’s lack of endorsement of a Palestinian state. The so-called two-state solution — of Israel and a Palestinian nation living side by side, sovereign and in peace — has for a generation been the bedrock of a solution to the seemingly intractable conflict. But Trump, during a visit from hard-line Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said he would be open to either a two-state or a one-state solution. Critics say the latter would make it impossible for Israel to retain both its democratic and Jewish character.

tracy.wilkinson@latimes.com

noah.bierman@latimes.com

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