Elephants in the Room
Sisi’s Meeting With Trump Was a Success
Egypt needs a boost in both military and economic assistance, not a cutback
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had good reason to be walking on air this week. He received a warm welcome in the Donald Trump White House on Monday, in marked contrast to the attitude of the Obama administration, which in effect declared him persona non grata. Indeed, the contrast between the treatment of Egypt by the Tump and Obama administrations could not be more stark. Whereas President Barack Obama and his team did not hesitate to welcome the Muslim Brotherhood’s takeover of Egypt, while summarily dismissing former President Hosni Mubarak, the current administration is debating whether to go so far as to label the Brotherhood a terrorist organization.
Sisi’s Egypt is in a parlous state, and to right itself, it needs the help of the United States. Sisi still must confront terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula, as well as a fractured Libya that could easily go the way of Somalia and Yemen, if it has not already done so. Egypt needs to modernize and upgrade its military. It also needs to reassert itself in the Arab world. It has gone from leader to bystander, which is bad not only for Cairo, but for the all Arab countries, particularly in light of dangerous meddling by both Turkey and Iran in Iraq and Syria. Finally, Egypt’s economy is in shambles, with tourism, a major source of income, only beginning to recover after several dreadful years during which foreigners kept Egypt off their travel itineraries.
Despite Trump’s warm words, his administration’s budget proposal cuts assistance for virtually every country but Israel. Egypt’s aid has not been formally reduced, but it is still being evaluated. Cuts to Egypt’s $1.3 billion in military aid would be especially painful for an army that is heavily engaged in fighting terrorists in Sinai, that must be alert to the ongoing conflict in neighboring Libya, and that must upgrade its weapons systems and readiness in order to minimize the impact of the Obama administration’s two-year freeze on military aid.
Egypt’s need for increased economic assistance is equally urgent. Considering Egypt received only about $61 million last year apart from military assistance, 16 million of which was for democracy promotion and human rights, and only $26 million for direct economic support, any reductions would undermine the credibility of the Trump administration’s “reset.” By allocating more than 25 percent of all aid to human rights and related areas, the Obama administration may have patted itself on the shoulder for “doing good,” but in doing so, shortchanged efforts to improve the economic lot of Egypt’s 94 million people. The Trump administration needs to do much better than that.
In short, Sisi’s Egypt needs a boost in both military and economic assistance, not a cutback. There is some consolation for Cairo in that it is highly probable that in the economic sphere, costly human rights initiatives, whose efficacy is open to question, will no longer take away from whatever Egypt does receive. Still, if Trump is serious about developing the kind of tight relationship he described after meetings with his Egyptian counterpart, he needs to do more, not less, for Sisi in the realm of economic aid, while preserving the longstanding level of American military assistance.
Of course, a budget proposal is only a proposal, and it is Congress that will determine how much assistance Egypt receives in fiscal year 2017, assuming the legislature adopts no additional continuing resolution, after the current one ends on April 28. The importance of Congressional action clearly was one reason why Sisi’s off-the-record meeting with a large group of opinion leaders was noteworthy for the heavy presence of leaders of American Jewish organizations. That they tended to dominate the question-and-answer period that followed Sisi’s prepared remarks was also no coincidence. Sisi’s emphasis throughout his Washington visit was on the related issues of combatting terrorism and working with Israel, two subjects dear to the hearts of both Trump and the leadership of the American Jewish community. They certainly responded to him positively, and for his part, he must believe that the community’s leadership could help swing Congressional sentiment in favor of the assistance he seeks.
Sisi’s relationship with Israel could also prove particularly useful should the Trump administration make a serious attempt to spur some degree of progress in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. It is noteworthy that those Arab states least hostile to Israel (if it can be put that way) — namely the Gulf States, Jordan, Morocco, and Egypt — have ratcheted back their demands for the immediate creation of a Palestinian state. They recognize that Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, simply is not capable of reaching a full-blown agreement with Israel, but they are looking for some measure of progress. Sisi is well positioned to help in that regard, and American Jewish leaders appear to trust his views on Israel, which would enable him to act as something of a broker, not merely a participant.
All in all, it has been a good week for Egypt’s retired general. That the president has also warmly welcomed King Abdullah II of Jordan to the White House, and, at the king’s prodding, seems to have reversed a previous, seemingly indifferent attitude as to whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad does or does not remain in power, is an indication of the president’s increasing engagement with the region. Coupled with the departure of White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon from the National Security Council, the outcome of these meetings with key Arab leaders — and Israel’s only formal Arab interlocutors — also appears to reflect Trump’s growing interest in having America close the leadership vacuum in the Middle East, whch was bequeathed to him by his predecessor. The sooner that happens, the better.
Photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images