As Egypt swung from Islamist to military rule in a bloody coup two years into the Arab Spring, the Obama administration gave its major ally something that would hurt more than a military aid freeze: the cold shoulder.
That is set to change on Monday when President Donald Trump hosts his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, a military strongman and the leader tasked with bringing stability to the North African country, at the White House. It will be the first visit by an Egyptian president to Washington since 2009. In reviving a relationship that cooled under President Obama, the pair are set to discuss security and economic cooperation, the Muslim Brotherhood and, privately, human rights.
“[Trump] wants to use President Sissi’s visit to reboot the bilateral relationship and build on the strong connection the two presidents established when they first met in New York last September,” a senior White House official told reporters in a telephone briefing on Friday.
Activists are decrying the U.S.’s new embrace of Sissi, and experts say Trump, in hosting the Egyptian leader, is handing him the legitimacy he craves after the coup.
Obama refused to host Sissi at the White House, and suspended military funding for 17 months, after he rose to power on the back of the July 2013 ousting of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s only democratically elected leader. The only time the pair exchanged pleasantries on U.S. soil was a September 2014 meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
Trump, unlike his predecessor, has instead warmed to the leader of the second-biggest recipient of U.S. military aid ($1.3 billion a year). The pair met on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in September and, while he also met with Hillary Clinton, Sissi appeared to have hedged his bets in the contest. Trump promised him a state visit if he won the election, and expressed his fondness for Sissi’s battle against radical Islam. Sissi, in turn, was the first world leader, let alone Arab, to call and congratulate Trump when he subsequently won the election in November.
Trump would proceed to laud Sissi for wrestling the country back from the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s oldest and largest Islamist group, which Morsi led to power after Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak’s removal in the 2011 revolution. “He took control of Egypt. And he really took control of it,” he said in a September interview with Fox on the campaign trail. Trump may see some of Sissi’s strongman tendencies in himself. Trump has pledged to destroy the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) as Sissi has done in the restive Sinai Peninsula and in his crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, whose supporters have launched attacks against Egyptian authorities.
Security issues will therefore be central to Monday’s meeting between the pair, the White House official said, a focus Trump appears to be replicating across the region. The official added that Trump supports Sissi’s bid for “reform and moderation of Islamic discourse” in Egypt and the president would be interested to hear Sissi’s thoughts on the Muslim Brotherhood as it has “concerns about various activities that the Muslim Brotherhood has conducted in the region.” His administration is debating whether to label the group as an extremist organization.