For Trump and El-Sisi, Counterterrorism Makes the Heart Grow Fonder
Trump voices unqualified support for El-Sisi. Egyptian leader compliments Trump’s “unique personality.”
U.S. President Donald Trump received Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at the White House Monday and the two expressed their mutual adoration — centered not on human rights or shared values, but counter-terrorism.
“We agree on so many things. I just want to let everybody know, in case there was any doubt, that we are very much behind President el-Sisi,” Trump said. “He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation. We are very much behind Egypt and the people of Egypt,” he added.
Meanwhile, el-Sisi lavished Trump with compliments of his own. “I’ve had a deep appreciation and admiration of your unique personality,” he said. A brief photo opportunity with the leaders featured not one but two handshakes. Maybe German Chancellor Angela Merkel would be jealous. Maybe.
“There’s a type of personal warmth in their relationship,” said Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, stemming back to their first meeting in September, when Trump was still a presidential candidate. El-Sisi met both Trump and his Democratic political rival Hillary Clinton that month during the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York. He liked one candidate more than the other. “He placed his bet back then. His statements made it very clear he was hoping Trump would win,” Dunne told Foreign Policy.
This is el-Sisi’s first visit to Washington since his own inauguration in 2014. Trump’s predecessor, U.S. President Barack Obama had frostier relations with the Egyptian leader and never invited him to the White House. Obama temporarily froze aid to Egypt after el-Sisi led the overthrow of the country’s ruling Muslim Brotherhood, which briefly led Egypt after the Arab Spring revolution of 2011.
El-Sisi’s resting his hopes on Trump to maintain key U.S. economic support and funding for his military, worth some $1.3 billion a year. It could be a do-or-die moment for the Egyptian leader, in a precarious situation back home with an economy in shambles, disenchanted political constituencies, and growing terrorism threats. Dunne said the visit sends an “important signal” to the military, his prime constituency, that he can deliver with the new White House.
El-Sisi was elected president in 2014 in an election many international observers decried as rigged (he won 96.1 percent of the vote, a suspiciously high margin of victory for a country mired in political turmoil). Since stepping into office, el-Sisi jailed some 40,000 political prisoners including thousands of Muslim Brotherhood affiliates, shut down civil society organizations, and clamped down on the media. In September, Trump referred to him as “a fantastic guy.”
El-Sisi used his White House visit to tout counter-terrorism above all else. “You will find Egypt and myself always beside you in bringing about an effective strategy in counterterrorism,” he said to Trump before press. He is reportedly pushing Trump to label the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, a move some regional experts warn could backfire given the group’s support among swaths of Middle Eastern society.
Egypt is waging its own war on terror in the Sinai peninsula, where it is battling extremist militant group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (meaning Supporters of Jerusalem) since 2011. In 2014, the group pledged allegiance to the Islamic State terror group. It has reportedly killed thousands, including hundreds of soldiers and police, in the past three years.
The visit could also take the wind out of the sails of human rights activists and civil society organizations in Egypt as Trump tosses rights issues to the wayside in favor of counter-terrorism cooperation. “There’s a sense that the United States no longer cares,” Dunne said, and el-Sisi’s government wouldn’t suffer consequences for human rights crackdowns.
“You’ll find me supporting you very strongly and very earnestly in finding a solution to the problem of the century,” el-Sisi told Trump. Some thought he meant the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while others imagined he meant terrorism. Trump seems to have taken the latter interpretation, responding, “We will do that together. We will fight terrorism and other things.” He added, “We’re going to be friends for a long, long period of time.”
Update: This article was updated to include comments from Michele Dunne.
Photo credit: Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images
Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering ambassadorial and diplomatic affairs in Washington. @emilyctamkin