Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi visits the White House today to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump.
El-Sissi’s first visit to the White House is important for U.S.-Egypt relations. Both leaders have repeatedly expressed admiration for each other, and Cairo appears eager to push for a stronger bilateral relationship that it perceives will do more to benefit its interests than its strained relationship with the Obama administration.
Ahead of the visit, the White House released a statement praising the “positive momentum [Trump and el-Sissi] have built for the United States-Egypt relationship.” Cairo has also been vocal in expressing support for strategic U.S.-Egypt ties and enhanced cooperation under the Trump administration.
In addition to the overall strengthening of ties, el-Sissi likely has four major priorities for this visit: securing U.S. support for Egypt’s counterterror interests, pressuring the United States to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, promoting Egypt’s economic reform program, and presenting Egypt as a leading regional power.
Security and Terrorism
Egypt presents itself as being on “the frontlines of the global war against terrorism” and extremism. That narrative drives much of the Egyptian rhetoric surrounding U.S. military assistance to Cairo.
During a recent visit to Washington, meetings included those with Deputy National Security Advisor K. T. McFarland and Senior Director for Middle East policies on the National Security Council Derek Harvey. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry called for continued U.S. assistance for Egypt’s counterterror operations and efforts as crucial to maintaining regional stability. He further described Egypt as “the country most capable [of confronting] extremist ideology amidst a region engulfed in conflicts and disputes.”
Cairo has also made efforts to present military assistance to Egypt as beneficial for U.S. interests in the region. On March 30, Egyptian Army Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Mahmoud Hegazy met with the Commander General of U.S. Army Central Michael Garrett to discuss military cooperation. A statement from the Egyptian military said that the meeting focused on the importance of continuing coordination and strengthening ties “in a way that serves the mutual interests [of both countries].” This rhetoric will certainly be echoed by el-Sissi during his Washington visit.
El-Sissi’s meeting with Trump also comes on the heels of two other major global meetings, both of which offered Cairo an opportunity to discuss Egypt’s counterterror vision ahead of el-Sissi’s visit with Trump.
On March 22, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hosted a 68-member meeting of the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS in Washington. At the meeting, Foreign Minister Shoukry emphasized Egypt’s efforts to fight extremist ideologies through “religious moderate platforms.” In 2015, el-Sissi called for a “religious revolution” and urged Islamic scholars to engage in reforms that would help combat extremism.
Cairo has been battling militants in the Sinai since 2013; in late 2014, the militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis pledged loyalty to ISIS. Days later in Amman, Jordan, at the 28th Arab summit, el-Sissi called for a “comprehensive” approach to fighting terrorism in the Middle East that underlines the role religious institutions, particularly Egypt’s al-Azhar, can play in that effort.
Sissi’s visit also comes amid Trump’s proposed budget cuts, which would significantly reduce spending on U.S. foreign aid. However, the administration is unlikely to decrease foreign military financing to Egypt, which makes up the bulk of the $1.3 billion in annual assistance the United States gives to Egypt.
Still, Egypt may also use the visit and the surrounding security rhetoric to advocate for the renewal of cash flow financing (CFF), a perk allowing Egypt to buy U.S. defense equipment on credit, which the Obama administration ordered to be terminated by 2018. In the current budget climate, it appears unlikely a decision would be made to continue CFF in its current form post-2018, despite efforts by some U.S. lawmakers to push legislation to reverse the Obama-era decision.
In the aftermath of the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi in 2013, Egypt banned the Muslim Brotherhood and labeled the group a terrorist organization. While there has been much debate in Washington since Trump’s inauguration regarding the possible designation of the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization by the United States, the administration has reportedly put on hold an executive order on the Brotherhood, possibly following an internal State Department memo, which advised against such an action.
Still, Egypt will continue to push for Trump to make the designation. An Egyptian delegation that included several members of parliament visited the United States ahead of el-Sissi’s arrival with the goal of pressuring the U.S. administration and members of Congress to designate the Brotherhood a terrorist organization.
However, the administration is unlikely to follow through on such a step anytime soon because the Brotherhood is a global organization and labeling it a terrorist organization would impact U.S. policy in other countries. Brotherhood-affiliated political parties are major U.S. allies, including those in Jordan and Tunisia. Indeed, the Tunisian Islamist party Ennahda has played a key role in Tunisia’s transition toward democracy.
Egypt will also seek to promote its economic reform and attract U.S. investments. As part of its economic reform program, Egypt has adopted a flexible exchange rate, enacted a value-added tax and increased fuel prices.
In November 2016, Egypt signed a three-year $12 billion agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that aimed to help the country achieve macroeconomic stability and promote inclusive growth. Egypt has also been negotiating funding agreements to fulfill its ambitious commitments in the IMF program with France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan and other G8 member countries.
U.S. investments in Egypt are important as Cairo seeks to attract more foreign direct investment. Last week, Egyptian Minister of Investment and International Cooperation Sahar Nasr chaired a conference with the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt. Nasr highlighted new investment opportunities in the country, which included new legislation that aims to minimize obstacles to would-be investors.
At the conference, AmCham Egypt President Anis Aclimandos said he was optimistic that the United States would increase investment in Egypt. Notably, el-Sissi will be accompanied in Washington by representatives from AmCham Egypt and the U.S.-Egypt Business Council, who will meet with U.S. businessmen to explain Egypt’s economic reform plans.
It is also worth noting that Egyptian intelligence recently hired two public relations firms in Washington to boost the country’s image in the United States and highlight, among other things, Cairo’s economic development efforts.
Regional challenges will be high on the agenda during the Trump and el-Sissi meeting—not least of which is Israeli-Palestinian peace. El-Sissi is among the Arab leaders in Jordan this week for the 28th Arab summit, a major focus of the summit being Palestinian statehood.
El-Sissi has sought to position Egypt as a leading regional actor on this issue. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met with el-Sissi in Cairo ahead of the Arab summit to discuss the U.S. administration’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian issue as well as Palestinian economic development and security. These issues were also discussed in Foreign Minister Shoukry’s meetings with Trump administration officials prior to the el-Sissi visit, who, according to the foreign ministry, were “keen to listen to the Egyptian perspective.”
Finally, el-Sissi is expected to discuss other critical regional issues, including the war in Syria, conflict in Yemen and instability in Libya. Egypt has worked to position itself as a regional leader on counterterrorism and a bastion of stability in a turbulent region. El-Sissi will likely present Cairo as a key U.S. partner in tackling regional instability.
There are certainly several topics that are not likely to be on the table for discussion. One of these is the imprisonment of U.S. citizen Aya Hegazy, who has been held in pretrial detention in Egypt for more than a year. The verdict in her case was recently postponed to April 16.
Other human rights issues or concerns are also unlikely to find a place on the agenda. And while it is worth noting that Egypt expressed dissatisfaction with the State Department’s recent 2016 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, Cairo linked its discontent to the previous administration, saying it “reflected the view of the former Obama administration which had always sought to tarnish the image of Egypt in any way.”
Deputy Foreign Minister for Human Rights Laila Bahaaeddin said the Egyptian government “decided not to make a lot of fuss in the media on a negative report which was issued by the outgoing administration” because Trump “has said he wants closer relations with Egypt.” Closer U.S.-Egypt ties in this context refer to strengthened U.S. support for Egypt’s national security interests, while issues of democratic governance and respect for human rights will be pushed aside.
Ultimately, we are unlikely to see any major developments come out of el-Sissi’s meeting with Trump. Rather, optics will dominate over substance.
The visit provides an important opportunity for the Egyptian government to take advantage of positive rhetoric from the White House regarding the U.S.-Egyptian partnership and to continue to push the idea of a “renewed” strategic relationship with this administration.
Elissa Miller is an assistant director at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.