WASHINGTON – President Trump will look to “reboot” the U.S.-Egyptian relationship when he welcomes Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi to the White House on Monday.
“He wants to use president al-Sisi’s visit to reboot the bilateral relationship and build on the strong connection the two presidents established when they first met in New York last September,” a senior administration official told reporters on background ahead of the visit.
The meeting is expected to focus on countering terrorism in Egypt and the region, as well as U.S. financial support to Egypt to counter it.
The President will meet with al-Sisi in the Oval Office, before leading an expanded bilateral meeting with him in the Cabinet Room. He will then have a working luncheon with the Egyptian president in the State Dining Room.
It will be the second time they have spoken since Trump’s inauguration. The two spoke via phone on Jan. 23.
It will be the first time in seven years since an Egyptian head of state visited the White House, according to David Schenker, Aufzien Fellow and director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute.
“The April 3 Oval Office meeting between Presidents Trump and Abdul Fattah al-Sisi promises to be a warm homecoming. Although the two leaders have met only once previously – prior to the U.S. elections on the sidelines of last year’s UN General Assembly – they have by all accounts established a good rapport,” he wrote recently.
Schenker said their bond appears to be based on counterterrorism. Egypt is facing an insurgency from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in the Sinai Peninsula that is claiming dozens of Egyptian security force deaths per month on average.
ISIS, though having an estimated 600 fighters in the area, has wreaked havoc in the Sinai. According to Schenker, its successes there include the downing of an Mi-17 helicopter in 2014, destroying an M60 battle tank and sinking an Egyptian patrol boat in 2015. It has claimed it bombed a Russian passenger jet, killing 224 civilians.
A big question for Trump is how much he may provide to Egypt in terms of financial support to tackle this problem as well as terrorism in the region, amid concerns of human rights abuses.
The U.S. currently provides $1.3 billion in annual foreign military financing, and al-Sisi could request additional military funding that will enable it to purchase legacy weapons systems using U.S. financial assistance commitments.
The Obama administration curtailed some aid to the country in 2015 after al-Sisi’s military coup against Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi.
Trump has indicated he has wanted to cut foreign assistance, but the senior official said a “strong and sufficient level of support” to Egypt will continue.
“We’ve had a longstanding relationship with substantial foreign military assistance and economic support. That support has continued and we anticipate it will continue into the future,” the official said.
“We’re in the budget process right now, and those discussions are ongoing as to how it will be broken out but we are going to maintain a strong and sufficient level of support to Egypt,” the official said.
There is some concern that Egypt has not been cracking down as hard as it could on ISIS, and is instead more concerned with buying weapons for a future conventional war.
“To wit, the Egyptian military continues to favor purchasing tanks, F-16s, and missiles with its FMF instead of equipment better suited for counterinsurgency and border-security operations,” Schenker wrote.
As for human rights issues, the official said they are always “first and foremost in our discussions,” but said the administration’s approach is to handle such sensitive issues discreetly.
“Our approach is to handle these types of sensitive issues in a private, more discreet way that we believe is the most effective way to advance those issues to a favorable outcome,” the official said.
Trump is also expected to press al-Sisi to advance political and economic reform in Egypt, the senior administration official said.
“[Al-Sisi has] called for reform and moderation of Islamic discourse, initiated historic and courageous economic reforms, and sought to reestablish Egypt’s regional leadership role,” the official said.
“President Trump also supports al-Sisi’s ambition to develop a comprehensive counterterrorism approach that involves military, political, economic as well as social efforts. But President Trump also wants to increase the focus on economic and commercial cooperation,” the official said.
“Building a more stable, productive economy is a critical step to ensure long-term stability in Egypt,” the official said. “There is no question that the transition in their economy will be difficult in the long run, Egypt will be stronger if it follows through on its homegrown reform plan.”