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Trump Reverses US Policy Toward Egypt, Welcoming Sissi

  • Peter Heinlein

President Donald Trump meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, April, 3, 2017.

U.S. President Donald Trump reversed years of chilled relations with the world's largest Arab nation Monday, warmly welcoming Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi to the White House and pledging collaboration with Egypt in the fight against radical Islamist terrorism.

It was the first White House visit by an Egyptian leader since former President Barack Obama hosted Hosni Mubarak in 2009, before the upheaval that ousted Mubarak and touched off years of political turmoil that brought the authoritarian former general Sissi to power.

"We are very much behind Egypt and the people of Egypt," Trump said as the two leaders sat down together in the Oval Office. "We are rejuvenating our military to the highest level. And I just want to say to you, Mr. President, that you have a great friend and ally in the United States, and in me."

WATCH: US 'Very Much Behind' Egypt, Trump Says

WATCH: Sissi Praises Trump’s Stand Against Terrorism

Sissi, in turn, expressed deep admiration for Trump's strong stand on countering radical Islamist terrorism, which Sissi has emphasized since he came to power in 2013.

"You are standing very strong in the counterterrorism field, to counter this evil ideology that is claiming innocent lives, that is bringing devastation to communities and nations, and that is terrorizing innocent people," Sissi said. He told Trump the United States would find Egypt at its side in "bringing about an effective strategy in the counterterrorism effort."

Regional experts say balancing the relationship with the Egyptian leader will remain a difficult foreign policy challenge for Trump, just as it was for Obama.

"Obama's administration went through the arc from Mubarak, through revolution, through the Muslim Brotherhood, through another revolution, to a military-led regime," said Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute for Near East policy. "It was quite a tempestuous period in Egypt-U.S. relations."

Obama never invited Sissi to the White House, and froze aid to Cairo after Egypt's military, led by then-General Sissi, overthrew the country's first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi. Sissi was elected to the presidency a year later, in 2014.

Satloff says Trump is looking to Sissi, who has been outspoken in his condemnation of jihadism, as America's leading Arab partner in his high-profile fight against radical Islamist extremism.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, April 3, 2017.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, April 3, 2017.

Briefing reporters after Monday's White House talks, spokesman Sean Spicer gave no hint of what their collaboration on counterterrorism strategy would look like. He described the private meetings between the two leaders as candid. "The president made clear that this is a new day in the relationship between the United States and Egypt," Spicer said.

Human rights issues

Neither Spicer nor either leader made any mention of human rights, one of the chief stumbling blocks to warmer ties during Obama's presidency.

Days before Sissi's White House visit, a senior White House official briefing reporters said the Trump administration would work quietly with Egypt on human rights issues. "Our approach is to handle these types of sensitive issues in a private, more discreet way," the official said.

FILE - Alaa Hijazi, center, speaks about her sister Aya Hijazi, in photograph, during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 15, 2016.
FILE - Alaa Hijazi, center, speaks about her sister Aya Hijazi, in photograph, during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 15, 2016.

Human rights campaigners have been urging Trump to press Sissi to ease a harsh crackdown on political dissent. Thousands of activists have been jailed since Sissi took power, including American citizen Aya Hijazi, who was in Egypt working with a charitable organization to help homeless children when she was detained almost three years ago, according to rights groups.

In an interview with VOA's French to Africa service, Deputy Assistant to the President Sebastian Gorka declined to comment on efforts to free Hijazi and nearly 20 other Americans charged with political crimes in Egypt.

"We don't give our strategies out before we deploy them, so it wouldn't be right to comment," he said. "However, I will stress that the fate of American citizens outside the United States is of great concern to us."

The Egyptian leader is the first of three heads of state who will be visiting Trump this week, as the president continues an extended series of get-to-know-you meetings with major international players.

On Wednesday, Jordan's King Abdullah will be a guest in the Oval Office. The following day, Trump will fly to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida for two days of talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

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