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In D.C., Egyptian aims to fortify ties

by Compiled by Democrat-Gazette staff from wire reports | April 3, 2017 at 2:49 a.m. | Updated April 3, 2017 at 2:49 a.m.

CAIRO -- When President Donald Trump hosts Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi today in Washington, the two leaders will have a packed agenda: the fight against terrorism, the Middle East's multiple wars, the refugee crisis and Egypt's anemic economy.

Expectations for el-Sissi's wish list include a designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group, and the restoration of the kind of strategic partnership Egypt enjoyed with the United States for more than 30 years.

A senior White House official was noncommittal on what the administration was prepared to do on declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group. Briefing reporters, he spoke of the U.S.' wish to sustain a "strong security assistance relationship" with Egypt.

El-Sissi's "main motive in relation to political Islam is saying they're all terrorists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood," said Ziad Akl, senior researcher at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. El-Sissi and Trump are likely to "see eye-to-eye that there's no political Islam that's moderate or not moderate, and this will come down on the heads of the Brotherhood," Akl said.

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Egyptian officials also plan to attract more American investment to Egypt, but the continuation and expansion of U.S. military aid is the top priority.

Former Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy said that would be at the top of el-Sissi's agenda, but he expressed concern about Trump's plans to significantly cut foreign aid. The State Department has indicated that Egypt could be affected.

"If the U.S. aims to counter terrorism, it is natural they cooperate with us," Fahmy said in a video feed posted to his Twitter account.

Egypt also sees a threat from the turmoil in Libya, with which it shares a porous desert border. Egypt would prefer that the United States was more involved in the search for a political settlement unifying Libya's rival administrations, thus paving the way for crushing militant groups operating there.

El-Sissi may find it difficult to afford, politically or financially, involvement in a foreign military venture.

"The weakness of the Egyptian economy and the continuing predicament over terrorism in Sinai don't leave in Egypt's hands many important cards," wrote Mohamed el-Menshawy, a U.S.-based analyst.

Another possible issue for discussion between Trump and el-Sissi may be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Egypt has for decades been a staunch supporter of the Palestinians' right to statehood. El-Sissi reasserted that position when he addressed an Arab summit in Jordan last week, saying a Saudi peace plan adopted by Arab leaders in 2002 remained the basis for a settlement.

The plan provides Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for its withdrawal from lands occupied since 1967, allowing the creation of a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital.

Columnist Raghida Dergham wrote in the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat on Friday that Trump could push el-Sissi to abandon this initiative and persuade other Arab countries to de-emphasize the Palestinian issue.

"What the American president wants from Egypt is to remove the Palestinian question from Arab priorities and marginalize the Arab initiative, which cannot be delivered by el-Sissi," she wrote.

Thawing relations

The administration of former President Barack Obama kept el-Sissi at arm's length after the Egyptian leader rose to power in 2013 when, as defense minister, he led the military's ouster of Islamist Mohammed Morsi, who was affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. El-Sissi was elected president a year later.

Obama never invited el-Sissi to the White House, allowed his administration to repeatedly admonish the Egyptian government over its human-rights record and briefly suspended some U.S. military aid, which normally runs at $1.3 billion a year.

The Egyptian media responded by accusing Obama of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and destabilizing the country through his administration's backing of a popular 2011 uprising that ousted longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak.

In contrast, Trump and el-Sissi hit it off from their first encounter in September, when the then-Republican presidential nominee spoke of "good chemistry" between them after a meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. El-Sissi was the first leader in the Arab world to congratulate Trump on his election victory, and Trump has publicly described el-Sissi as "a fantastic guy."

The same Egyptian media that vilified Obama hailed Trump as a strong leader who appreciates el-Sissi's leadership and will treat Egypt with respect. Moreover, there is expectation that Trump's administration will be far more tolerant of human-rights abuses in the name of stability and counterterrorism.

Those abuses include the plight of Aya Hijazi, an Egyptian-American humanitarian worker from Falls Church, Va., who has been incarcerated by the Egyptian regime for nearly three years, accused of abusing children she was seeking to help through her nonprofit organization. Those charges are widely viewed as false.

Obama could not pressure el-Sissi's government to release Hijazi, or any of the tens of thousands of people jailed under el-Sissi's rule.

The Trump administration has noted that the U.S. needs Egypt's help in the region. The African nation is battling an affiliate of the Islamic State extremist group in its northern Sinai Peninsula and exerts regional influence in numerous crises where the United States is engaged, including the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen.

El-Sissi's visit comes days after the Trump administration agreed to resume arms sales to Bahrain, removing human-rights conditions imposed by Obama. Bahrain, which has brutally repressed activists and its Shiite majority, is another vital U.S. ally in the Middle East and is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

A White House statement Friday on el-Sissi's visit made no mention of the Egyptian government's human-rights record. Trump, it said, "aims to reaffirm the deep and abiding U.S. commitment to Egypt's security, stability and prosperity." And the statement described el-Sissi as having "called for reform and moderation of Islamic discourse, initiated courageous and historic economic reforms, and sought to reestablish Egypt's regional leadership role."

Egypt's pro-government media has called el-Sissi's White House visit historic -- it is the first by an Egyptian head of state since 2009. But U.S. critics say the Trump administration should have demanded that el-Sissi release Hijazi.

"If Trump is committed to an 'America first' foreign policy ... he should make sure Americans get out of prison," said Sarah Margon, Washington director at Human Rights Watch. Granting el-Sissi a White House visit, she added, is "huge leverage. To just open door with nothing given by the Egyptian president beforehand is shocking, particularly when American interests are at stake."

Administration officials declined to say whether Trump would press his counterpart on human rights. The president's approach "is to handle these types of sensitive issues in a private, more discreet way," one administration official said. "And we believe it's the most effective way to advance those issues to a favorable outcome."

Asked about Hijazi, White House officials said the president is aware of her case, but they did not commit to raising it with el-Sissi directly.

"We will figure out the best way to raise this ... to maximize the chances her case is resolved positively," one official said.

Information for this article was contributed by Sudarsan Raghavan, David Nakamura and Heba Mahfouz of The Washington Post; by Hamza Hendawi and Jill Colvin of The Associated Press; and by Tarek El-Tablawy and Ahmed Feteha of Bloomberg News.

A Section on 04/03/2017

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