Egypt's president seeks endorsement from the White House

EGYElSissiWhiteHouseCAIRO - Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi flies to Washington Tuesday, expecting the American president to endorse moves in Cairo allowing him to run for two additional six-year terms after the 2022 end of his current mandate.

His visit comes as Israeli voters go to the polls with most indicators pointing to a fifth term for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Both men are in the group of Middle Eastern leaders closest to President Trump, and the White sees the El Sisi visit as an opportunity to cement “Egypt’s long-standing role as a lynchpin of regional stability,” according to a statement last week.

It also comes as the Trump administration unveils its “Deal of the Century” peace plan after Israel’s elections, say analysts.

“El Sisi’s visit is in conjunction with the Israeli elections and the American initiative for peace in the Middle East which will be unveiled soon after,” said Sayed Sadek, a political sociology professor at Cairo's American University. “One of the most important points in the agenda of this meeting with Trump is to spell out precisely what is required of Egypt in this initiative and what role it will play.”

“Egypt’s political capital in Washington is that it is a moderate force in the region and prevents the escalation of military conflict between the Palestinians and Israel in Gaza,” Sadek added.

Cairo analysts say that continuity at the top of Egypt’s power structure – with El Sisi’s term prolonged through 2034 – serves historic American interests by expanding the scope of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty signed by the late President Anwar Sadat and Prime Minister Menachem Begin in March 1979 when Jimmy Carter was the U.S. president.

After meeting Trump, Sisi will attend a Capitol Hill ceremony to hand out a posthumous award of a Congressional Gold Medal to Anwar Sadat to his widow Jihan.

Not in attendance will be Mohammed Anwar Sadat, a nephew of assassinated president who is one of the leading members of the liberal opposition to the military’s ongoing consolidation of power in the form of a referendum in May on the constitutional amendments to extend El Sisi’s rule.

“These constitutional changes demolish liberties, democracy and the existence of a civil state,” said Sadat, who was stripped of his parliament seat in 2017 on charges that he leaked 'secret information to international institutions’ when he criticized Egypt’s human rights record.

Human Rights Watch estimates at least 60,000 people have been arrested on political grounds in recent years. El Sisi denies that these arrests.

While most voters in Egypt said they were unaware or unconcerned about the Egyptian president's visit to Washington, they were more critical of civil rights and economic situation in the country.

"(I have been critical) From the first moment El Sisi sat in the seat of power and I saw his desire to amend the constitution to grant extended presidential terms,” said Michael Youssef a 37-year-old Uber driver and a former automobile spare parts dealer. “I did not participate in the previous presidential elections and certainly will not go to the referendum on the constitutional amendments because everyone in Egypt knows the result in advance.”

The referendum is due to be held before the start of the holy month of Ramadan in May.

Meanwhile, under El Sisi Egypt has made efforts to liberalize trade, but non-tariff barriers continue to present problems for domestic importers while the poor and middle class have been hit hard by a withdrawal of energy subsidies and steep inflation driven by a 2016 currency devaluation that essentially cut the value of the Egyptian pound by half.
"The increase in prices and the deteriorating economic situation does not make me enthusiastic about anything Sisi is doing,” said Youssef.

Nevertheless, the Trump-El Sisi dynamic is the strongest bond between leaders in Washington and Cairo since the Sadat-Carter partnership brought the Sinai Peninsula back under Egypt’s sovereignty, tore up a pact between the nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser and the former Soviet Union as Sadat forged a strategic defense alliance between the largest Arab nation and the United States.

“The special relationship between President El Sisi and President Trump was built during the 2016 US elections and the words exchanged between the two presidents show their admiration for each other’s views and abilities,” said Tarek El Khouly, 34, a freshman member of the Egyptian parliament. “Trump said he would cooperate with anyone in the Middle East to resolve the conflicts and problems left by the Obama administration and we have witnessed the return of military cooperation between the two sides.”

El Khouly lauds El Sisi for making “difficult economic decisions and undertaking necessary reforms” to secure a $12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund and launch a massive infrastructure drive even as the military battled an ISIS inspired terror campaign targeting soldiers and civilians in the Sinai Peninsula and against government and Christian targets in the Nile Valley.

“Changing leaders in the middle of the journey to restructure our state and economy just doesn’t make any sense,” said El Khouly, a supporter of the proposed amendments that give the president further power over legislature with a new upper chamber appointed by El Sisi and discretion to nominate his own judges to Egypt’s courts.

The parliament members in Cairo are aware that liberal US think tanks like the Carnegie Endowment and congressmen including Vermont’s Senator Patrick Leahy have slammed El Sisi for his human rights record and a heavy-handed approach to counterterrorism – including the 2015 injury of American professional roller skater April Corley who while on a desert safari was badly injured by Apache helicopters hunting down terrorists.

“Those criticisms that come from Washington will not disappear, but there are also interest groups such as the American business community, friendly lobbies, and the security and defense community who understand that Egypt is a vital partner,” said Karim Darwish, 51-year-old chairman of the parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee. “We want president El Sisi to complete his economic strategy for 2030 and America knows we believe in peace and will spare no effort to achieve it for the entire region.”

Photo: Screenshot of a video post taken from the White House official twitter. United States President Donald Trump (left) hosted Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi (right). The post read: "President Trump had a bilateral meeting with President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi of the Arab Republic of Egypt in the Oval Office this afternoon, followed by an expanded working lunch."
Credit: Official Twitter of the White House (04/09/19)

Story/photo publish date: 04/08/19
A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.
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