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Trump-Sisi Summit: Good Rapport but Few Concretes

President Donald Trump hosted Egyptian President Abdul Fattah El-Sisi at the White House on April 3, including a six-minute Oval Office press session that highlighted the new and improved Washington-Cairo partnership, following years of US-Egypt friction during the Barack Obama Administration.

While the atmospherics of the summit were all positive, with the two leaders exchanging warm words of praise and pledges of long-term collaboration, some tough, important questions were left unanswered: Will the United States increase military and economic aid to Egypt, and will the Trump Administration declare the Muslim Brotherhood to be a terrorist organization?

Pentagon officials charged with conducting the war against the Islamic State and Al Qaeda remain concerned that the Egyptian military may need help in its fight to crush ISIL in its Sinai strongholds. On the eve of President El-Sisi’s visit to Washington, the Egyptian Air Force conducted intense bombing raids in the north of the Sinai near the town of El Arish, killing several dozen jihadist fighters. But hundreds of ISIL fighters and allied Bedouin tribal fighters remain entrenched in the Mt. Jabal Hala region of central Sinai, and recent fighting with Egyptian military units and ISIL have resulted in heavy government casualties. Egyptian police face frequent ambushes by ISIL in many parts of the Sinai, and occasionally, ISIL erects checking points in main road in northern Sinai, stop cars and search them, arrest alleged government collaborators and slaughter them in public at Arish city squares.

While the Trump Administration’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget allocated $3.1 billion in military aid to Israel, the scheduled $1.3 billion defense aid to Egypt and a smaller military aid package to Jordan were not included as line items, on the grounds that those budget allocations are still under review. The Trump Administration is facing a budget dilemma:  The President has announced planned cuts of 28 percent in foreign aid spending, and this includes treaty obligations under the Camp David Accords and the later Israel-Jordan peace agreements. While President Trump is committed, in principle, to meet the defense funding commitments to Egypt and Jordan, he must make some tough decisions about overall spending priorities, which amount to a very difficult paradox that is not yet resolved.

The Trump Administration has made clear that the human rights issues, which were strong factors in Obama Administration foreign policy and foreign aid (Egyptian military aid was cutoff between 2012-2015 after the Obama Administration characterized the ouster of the Mohammed Morsi Muslim Brotherhood government as a “coup” by the Egyptian Armed Forces, despite massive popular protests against the Morsi regime’s brutal crackdown against dissent), are no longer priorities.

Economic aid to Egypt has been frozen at $150 million, although the Trump Administration has asked the Saudis to resume economic assistance to Egypt, and King Salman did meet with President El-Sisi on the sidelines of the Arab League summit in Jordan in late March, and restored discount oil sales to Egypt at that bilateral discussion.

Other Saudi economic aid may be forthcoming, as King Salman invited President El-Sisi to Riyadh next month, and President El-Sisi reciprocated by inviting the Saudi King to Egypt in the near future.

Another issue that looms large for President El-Sisi is the pending US designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as an international terrorist organization. Egypt banned the Muslim Brotherhood and declared them to be a terrorist organization in late 2013. This further dampened relations with the Obama Administration, which had banked on the Muslim Brotherhood emerging as a “moderating force” within political Islam, following the outbreak of what came to be called the “Arab Spring” in late 2010. While the Obama Administration eventually stepped back from its backing for the Brotherhood, doors remained open at the US State Department and even at the Obama White House, where Presidential special assistant Gayle Smith maintained cordial contacts with Muslim Brotherhood leaders, following the 2012 ouster of the Mohammed Morsi regime.

Senator Ted Cruz has sponsored legislation, declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, but that legislation is stalled in the Congress. President El-Sisi had hoped that President Trump would use the occasion of the White House working meeting to issue a Presidential decree against the Brotherhood. However, to date, the State Department has pushed back against that decree, and argued, instead, for select Muslim Brotherhood individuals and local organizations to be designated as terrorists.

In March 2016, the Muslim Brotherhood issued a 62 page “official declaration,” countering the terrorism charges, and arguing that the group was a “movement,” not a formal organization, with loose affiliates that do not take top-down orders from any leadership. As ludicrous as this claim is, the document effectively blocked the United Kingdom government from censuring the organization last year.

President Trump is being encouraged to sign an Executive Order declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization by his chief White House strategist Steven Bannon and members of the Bannon-led Strategic Initiatives Group, which includes counter-terrorism adviser Sebastian Gorka.

While the results of the Trump-Sisi summit are so far inconclusive, there is no doubt that the US-Egyptian relationship is now on a much more solid ground than at any time during the Obama years. The personal rapport between the two presidents is significant, particularly because President Donald Trump places so much importance on building personal bonds. The two men first met in September 2016 on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, and from that point on, they repeatedly spoke highly of each other’s’ leadership in the fight against jihadist terrorism.

President Trump has also made it clear that he is committed to striking the “deal of the century,” an Arab-Israeli peace deal that will include a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. The President is prepared to build strong ties to the Sunni Arab world. In late March, President Trump’s personal international negotiator, Jason Greenblatt, made a fact-finding tour of the region, during which he visited Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. He returned as an invited observer to the Arab League summit in Jordan, where he met with most of the key Arab leaders, and made clear that the Trump Administration supports the revival of the Arab Peace Initiative, proposed more than a decade ago by then-Saudi King Abdullah.

For his part, President El-Sisi conducted a broad diplomatic outreach to the US, targeting the Congress and leading business circles. An Egyptian diplomatic delegation arrived in Washington on March 28, for a series of meetings with leading Members of Congress, including House Republican Whip Steve Scalise. The Egyptian delegation included current and former parliamentarians, former Ambassador to the US Mohammed Tawfik and former Foreign Minister Mohammed Al-Orabi. They focused on the Muslim Brotherhood issue and Egypt’s importance in the fight against ISIL. In addition to the battle in the Sinai, Egypt is providing critical support to Libyan National Army Head General Khalifa Haftar, who has been battling ISIL-allied groups like Ansar Al-Sharia in the country’s eastern provinces near the Egyptian border.

President El-Sisi also knows that his is working hard for a genuine boost for the Egyptian economy, which translates into improved economic conditions for the Egyptian people. From March 13-23, preceding his visit, President El-Sisi dispatched a second delegation, led by his Minister of Communications and Information Technology, Yasser El Kady, to meet with top American IT executives, to seek investments and partnerships with Egyptian telecommunication firms. El Kady had successful meetings with Dell, Cisco, Oracle and Honeywell executives, and got significant pledges for US investment and presence in the new “Knowledge City” under construction, as part of a new administrative capital city.

April 6, 2017

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