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Trump, Sissi to Seek Closer Cooperation Against Islamist Extremism

  • Peter Heinlein

President Donald Trump greets Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi as he arrives at the White House in Washington, April 3, 2017.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi is meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House, with the two countries expected to reach accord on enhanced collaboration in the fight against Islamist terrorism.

“Both have a very deep antipathy toward political Islamism,” said H.A. Hellyer, senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. “They both view security as very much the first, second and third priority of politics.”

In an Oval Office meeting Monday, Trump said that Sissi has done a "fantastic job in a very difficult situation." He noted that the United States is rebuilding its military "to the highest level" as it looks to fight Islamic State militants and offer support to its allies.

Sissi, who is making his first official visit to the White House, said he has a deep appreciation for Trump's "unique personality" and praised Trump for "standing very strong in the counter terrorism field to counter this evil ideology."

An earlier White House statement praised the Egyptian leader’s tough policy in battling terrorists.

“Sissi has taken bold steps on a number of sensitive issues since becoming president in 2014,” it said.

WATCH: Trump's remarks to Sissi before their meeting

Common goals

Analysts and regional experts who spoke to VOA agreed that the meeting is fated to succeed. The two were reported to have gotten along well when candidate Trump met the Egyptian leader in September on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.

Given their common emphasis on security, it should be easy to breathe new life into a relationship that was bruised and battered during the Obama presidency, analysts say.

Obama froze aid to Cairo after Egypt’s military, led by then General Sissi, overthrew Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, in 2013. (Sissi was elected to the presidency a year later.) Obama declined to invite Sissi to the White House and was critical of the military regime’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, which Morsi represented as president. Sissi regards the Brotherhood as a terrorist group.

“Obama’s administration went through the arc from (former president Hosni) Mubarak, through revolution, through the Muslim Brotherhood, through another revolution, to a military-led regime,” said Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute, which specializes in Middle East policy. “It was quite a tempestuous period in Egypt/U.S. relations.”

America’​s Arab partner

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.

“Sissi has been very vocal about jihadist extremism, how important it is for moderate mainstream Muslim leaders to recapture the narrative from the jihadist extremists,” Satloff said in an interview.

“He’s gone to the headquarters of Muslim learning in Egypt, al Azhar, and he’s challenged the intellectual and thought leaders to recapture the high ground from the jihadists. So I don’t think Sissi is going to have a hard time with President Trump’s characterization on this issue,” Satloff said.

FILE - In this May 21, 2016, file photo, an EgyptAir plane flies past minarets of a mosque as it approaches Cairo International Airport, in Cairo, Egypt.
FILE - In this May 21, 2016, file photo, an EgyptAir plane flies past minarets of a mosque as it approaches Cairo International Airport, in Cairo, Egypt.

Muslim world watching

The Oval Office meeting was keenly watched in Cairo, where there is intense curiosity about Trump’s intentions toward Egypt and the greater Muslim world.

“The entire region seems to be holding its breath,” says the Atlantic Council’s Hellyer. “They’re wondering, OK, Trump has just banned citizens of six Muslim majority countries, and what does that mean. And now the thing with the flights, where airports, including Cairo, you can’t take laptops on flights to the U.S. And then what’s happening with that inner circle around Trump speaking not just about Islamism, but about Islam and Muslims more generally,” Hellyer said.

Cairo’s political elites were also watching the Oval Office meeting closely for signs of Trump’s positions on a number of other important issues: will Trump’s proposed cutbacks in foreign spending translate to reductions in crucial military and financial assistance? And perhaps more importantly, will a warm Trump embrace signal a more relaxed U.S. attitude toward the Sissi administration’s much maligned human rights record?

A senior White House official Friday indicated 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. “We believe it’s the most effective way to advance those issues to a favorable outcome.”

Human rights on the table

Those were not the words human rights campaigners were hoping to hear. At a briefing for reporters at the Arab Center in Washington Thursday, activists expressed concern about what they see as a slide toward authoritarianism in Egypt that includes cracking down on civil society and closing political space.

“I think President Sissi looks at the White House as a big prize to legitimize his rule in Egypt,” said Moataz El Fegiery, protection coordinator for Middle East Front Line Defenders in London. “If the United States has leverage on Egypt, it is very important that human rights be on the table. Otherwise it is a green light from the White House for President Sissi to continue his massive crackdown on peaceful opposition and civil society.”

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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