Is Sisi visiting the US to seek Trump's blessing?

  • Tuncay ┼×ahin
  • 9 Apr 2019

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al Sisi is on a three-day visit to the US and experts view it as a much needed outreach for the former military general who's facing international criticism for his increasingly authoritarian approach.

In this April 3, 2017 file photo, President Donald Trump shakes hands with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el Sisi in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. ( AP Archive )

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al Sisi is on a three-day visit to the US and experts view it as a much needed outreach for the former military general who's facing international criticism for his increasingly authoritarian approach.  

At a time when Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al Sisi is facing international criticism over his poor human rights record, he's arrived in the US to meet President Donald Trump.

Sam Hamad, a Scottish-Egyptian writer for Middle East Affairs, said Sisi's meeting with Trump or any member of his administration would be tacit support for his term limit extension. 

Sisi, who came to power in a 2013 military coup that toppled Egypt’s first democratically-elected president Mohammed Morsi, is now backed by a constitutional amendment which paved the way for him to stay in power until at least 2034.

There's one thing Sisi should worry about, however, and that is his recent purchase of Russian military jets, a move that was provocative enough for many Democratic and Republican Congressmen to criticise his presidency. 

The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Reese and top Democrat Bob Menendez, supported by over a dozen other Senate members, had urged Foreign Minister Mike Pompeo to raise concerns about Egypt's fast shrinking political freedoms and rampant human rights violations, while meeting Sisi in January. 

But Pompeo paid no heed. Following his meeting with Sisi, he said: “The US-Egypt relationship is one of our deepest and broadest partnerships in the region."

Now the meeting between Trump and Sisi will be held against this backdrop. A White House official recently said they would focus on "military and economic cooperation and counterterrorism as well as regional economic integration and Egypt's long-term role as a key to regional stability". 

Sisi is aware of simmering dissent and his waning popularity in Egypt however, and he has been candid enough to admit his failure in fixing the country's economy. He was even rebuked by people for saying Egyptians “have not yet come to the point where they can enjoy the prosperity of their European neighbours”.

In 2014 and 2016, the former military commander won two elections that were boycotted by the opposition and called “neither free nor fair” by the Human Rights Watch (HRW), as well as many other rights groups and international organisations. 

Some say that any candidate running against Sisi would win in a fair election. And this is the exact atmosphere Sisi is living as he travels to the US.

The visit is the seventh since he took power in the summer of 2014, and the meeting with Trump is the fifth of its kind since the latter's inauguration in January 2017.

“The US trip at this time helps the Egyptian president with that argument that these amendments [to increase his term limit by over a decade] are normal,” said Mohamed Elmeshad, a researcher at SOAS University in London.

Elmeshad said that the US is likely to face heat for giving a tacit nod to Sisi-led constitutional amendments, but strengthening Egypt’s regional position would continue to be its main focus. 

“First of all that Sisi has been successful in enhancing Egypt's position as an international power broker and that he has the support of the major world powers to continue on this path,” he said.

Why does the West continue to support Egypt?

The United States, European Union, and many other European states have been providing substantial financial assistance to Sisi since he overthrew Morsi. 

The US State Department's latest annual report on human rights in Egypt, released in March, said abuses included arbitrary or unlawful killings by the Egyptian government or its agents, forced disappearances and torture.

The United States, nevertheless, has unfrozen $195 million in military aid to Egypt which it had previously withheld in part because of concerns over Egypt's human rights record. 

Elmeshad said that Trump may not like the idea of cultivating allies in the Middle East but he cannot afford to reverse the growing support to the Sisi regime in light of oil security and Washington's position vis-a-vis Israel. 

“There is the added matter of the growing influence of Russia and China,” he said. “The US cannot afford to lose allies like Egypt who may fall under their spheres of influence.” 

Besides enjoying the backing of Western powers, Hamad said Sisi has almost always had the support of two main regional backers, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

“They will do everything they can to keep Sisi in power and ensure that nothing emerges in Egypt that is, like the Morsi government and Egyptian democracy, a threat to their interests,” Hamad said.  

Sisi's meeting with Trump comes ahead of the announcement of Trump's Middle East Peace Plan (which he has dubbed the deal of the century). 

Media leaks suggested that the plan includes the waiver of many of the constants of the Palestinian cause, such as Jerusalem and the right of return of refugees.

Trump is expected to use Sisi's influence in the region for the implementation of the plan.