Donald Trump is giving Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi the red-carpet White House welcome he always wanted.
After years of feeling snubbed by the Obama administration, the Egyptian strongman has been warmly received by the new American president, who has called him a “fantastic guy.”
Merely by inviting him to Washington, Trump is granting Sisi what top Egyptian officials in Cairo told us they wanted last year: a public U.S. endorsement of Sisi and his fight against terrorism. Trump is most likely similarly hungry for public validation from an Arab leader. But he is a transactional leader, and his job now is to clarify what Sisi can offer him—and more importantly, America—in return.
When we sat down with the Egyptian president last summer, he described the terrorist threat in existential terms: “If Egypt falls,” Sisi told us, “the whole world will fall … and if one in every one thousand Egyptians is a takfiri”—an extremist who believes Islam permits the killing of unbelievers, include more moderate Muslims—“imagine 90,000 killing machines, each one ready to take out one person before they die.”
Sisi is eager for help and for the full-fledged international endorsement Obama denied him. Egyptian officials feel besieged by what they describe as “three wars”: serious security threats from ISIS to the east in Sinai; Libya’s growing chaos next door in the west; and the re-emergence of violent groups inside Egypt’s mainland, including some Islamists that Cairo believes are connected to the Muslim Brotherhood. Without American help, they warn that these threats can metastasize and further destabilize both their country and the region.
The question President Trump faces is how to turn his “good chemistry” with Sisi into greater cooperation on the issue that he’s made the focus of his foreign policy: defeating terrorism. In pursuing an Egypt reset, Trump should do what he has done with partners and allies in Europe and East Asia: Ask for more in return.
The relationship between the United States and Egypt has long been dominated by the two countries’ militaries. The political turmoil of the last few years has strained those ties, but the U.S. military has consistently argued that Egypt is too important to ignore: Its strategic location, its population of 90 million, and its historical connection to jihadist groups and ideology make it a critical partner in any strategy for defeating terrorism.
Trump and Sisi can deepen the military-to-military relationship and ensure it is laser-focused around Egypt’s present and future threats. This requires a substantial overhaul of a bilateral security arrangement that remains stuck in the past—the Egyptian military has failed to reform in ways Washington hopes would make it more effective in fighting terrorism.
The Obama administration outlined “four pillars” to focus its $1.3 billion annual U.S.-funded security aid package: counterterrorism, securing the restive Sinai, protecting Egypt’s vital Suez waterways, and protecting porous borders. Trump should retain these priorities and add a fifth pillar: improved training for Egyptian forces in special operations and counterinsurgency.
Despite the significant political and diplomatic turbulence of the last few years, Egypt and the United States kept up their close military and intelligence ties – but many avenues for cooperation remain closed or underdeveloped, such as countering improvised explosive devices and implementing sound counterterrorism doctrine against Sinai jihadist groups. After the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, America has hard-won expertise on this, and it can share this knowledge only with a willing partner.
A key issue Sisi will likely raise is the designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists under U.S. law. So far, the Trump administration has held off, and would be wise to continue to do so. Cairo, too, should be pressed to provide proper evidence. The Muslim Brotherhood is no friend of the United States, but terrorist designations should be narrowly focused only on those engaging in and supporting violence—and the domain of apolitical intelligence professionals, not pundits or ideologues. Furthermore, even if Trump and Sisi do agree broadly on the Brotherhood, this should not sweep away questions over the soundness of Egypt’s counterterrorism strategy and reported human rights abuses.
But other aspects Sisi’s rhetoric do present openings worth exploring fully. For example, Sisi
has spoken boldly of his desire to counter extremist religious narratives and promote moderation. The United States can help him craft a more holistic policy agenda: targeted economic development in at-risk communities, improving the internet reach and tech literacy of clerics seeking to refute extremists online, professionalizing the Egyptian interior ministry and addressing prison conditions to combat radicalization.
But to achieve results in the fight against terrorists, Trump must also address Egypt’s political repression and its treatment of its citizens in detention. Restrictions on basic freedoms constrain the space for a genuine battle of ideas essential in defeating extremism and in enhancing Egypt’s prospects to reemerge as a regional bulwark against sectarianism, terrorism and proxy wars. If Trump wishes to win broader support for his approach, he would be wise to quietly seek the release of Aya Hegazy, an American citizen who has been detained without trial on preposterous trumped-up charges for almost three years, and a resolution of other outstanding legal cases against Egyptian-Americans.
Even if America’s sole priority in Egypt were counterterrorism, there would be be little Egypt could do that would be more valuable over time than successfully navigating its domestic economic and political challenges to emerge as a durably stable partner. At the top of the list is encouraging Egyptians to craft a strategy for delivering jobs, investment and growth—and providing U.S. advice and support as it does. Egypt has already undertaken painful but necessary economic reforms, including some unprecedented moves to reform budget-killing energy and food subsidies and float its currency. One of America’s biggest oversights in the years leading up to the 2011 uprising was to underestimate the hardship a previous round of reforms had inflicted on poor Egyptians; this time, the U.S. private sector can be mobilized to help with greater trade and investment to cushion the blow.
Sisi insisted to us that he is not beholden to the “old literature” of a storied relationship. And nobody has accused President Trump of excessive devotion to diplomatic custom. The two men are poised to have a positive meeting – but that’s only the first step. Trump is in a unique position to make progress not just on counterterrorism, but on broader aspects of the relationship. Previous Egyptian leaders, for example, have stoked resentment against the United States to distract from their own failures. While Egyptian leaders have claimed they cannot stamp out anti-Americanism in their state-owned press without violating its supposed independence, if President Sisi is serious in seeking a reset with America, he could certainly use his bully pulpit to make clear to the Egyptian public that America has been a valuable partner to Egypt for decades and is not a threat to their country. President Trump should strongly encourage him to do so.
A White House photo cannot be an end in itself. It must be a means to deliver tangible results that secure American interests and help Egypt progress. What matters most is not what the two presidents say to each other on Monday, but how the governments and people of both countries follow up.