Donald Trump with Egyptian President in New York, Sept. 19, 2016
Photo by Reuters
On Monday April 3, US President Donald Trump will host Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for talks in Washington. The last visit of an Egyptian president to the United States was by former ousted president Hosni Mubarak, in 2004.
The Egyptian leadership seems to have spent much time and effort planning this trip to post-Obama America, with three possible main goals in mind: financial support from the new Trump administration, a clearer American stance toward the Muslim Brotherhood, and kick starting a joint foreign policy that allows Egypt to be an important player in a wider regional alliance.
First, to achieve financial support from the Trump administration, which has already vowed to cut foreign aid, President Sisi first has to convince the American administration his regime is stable and that the chance of a revolution of the poor is unlikely, at least in the near future. The Egyptian leadership may also find it tricky to convince its American counterpart that it is succeeding in its war against ISIS in Sinai, especially with emerging reports of increasing casualties among Egypt’s army and police in both North and Central Sinai.
Last month, ISIS forced the Coptic residents of North Sinai to flee their homes. Some eyewitness claim that the militants have started to set up security checkpoints in North Sinai’s capital, Al-Arish. More alarmingly, some reports suggest ISIS’s influence is rising in South Sinai. Several days ago, Israel issued an urgent warning to Israelis travelling in the Sinai, although Israelis mostly ignored the warning.
It is likely the Egyptian president may succeed in securing American backing for his war in Sinai, but the chances of any financial support will depend on his ability to convince his American counterpart of his army’s readiness to embrace an effective counter-insurgency strategy, instead of seeking purchases of conventional arms.
Second, the Egyptian leadership is looking for a clear stance from Trump’s America against political Islam. The leadership is seeking a ban on the Muslim Brotherhood in the US, which has not materialized so far. A report suggests that the administration backed down from a plan to designate the Brotherhood last month after an internal State Department memo advised against it because of the movement’s loosely -knit structure and far-flung political ties across the Middle East. The White House has confirmed that President Trump will discuss with President Sisi the possibility of designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.
Nonetheless, this discussion may not yield the results the Egyptian president is after. Although the American president may share Sisi’s hostility towards the Brotherhood nonetheless, it is unlikely this joint hostility will lead to a formal ban of the Brotherhood, simply because of the complexity of such a blanket ban.
Third, the Egyptian president is keen to present himself as a most reliable pro-American player in the region in liaison with other American allies such as Jordan, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. Recently, Egypt managed to re-establish warmer ties with Saudi Arabia during the Arab Summit. It also conducted several joint exercises with some Gulf States. President Sisi may also, directly or indirectly, seek to alienate regional foes such as Turkey and Qatar.
There is subtle competition between Ankara and Cairo to win the heart and mind of the new American administration. Although Egypt understands that the US cannot and will not abandon its ties with Turkey, the Egyptian leadership may try to make the Turkish link the weakest in America’s links in the region, taking advantage of the Turkish leadership’s dogmatic approach to foreign policy, particularly in Syria.
The US’s new approach in Syria, which is no longer prioritizing the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and its backing of Kurdish militias have caused frustration in Ankara, but it is probably music to Sisi’s ears. After all, he is the one who presents himself as being more in tune with America’s policy in Syria than the Turkish president. Nonetheless, despite this common vision on the regional foreign policy front between Cairo and Washington, it is unlikely the Trump administration will be able to force Ankara to abandon its patronage of the Muslim Brotherhood. Trump still needs Erdogan, even if he despises the Turkish president’s Islamism.
There is an air of unrealistic optimism among Sisi’s pundits regarding the Egyptian president’s trip to the United States. It seems officials in Cairo think they can charm their way in DC and return with good bargains both politically and militarily. It is true President Trump “wants to reboot the relationship between the two countries, and he thinks President Sisi is a “fantastic guy,” but Trump will still need hard evidence before sanctioning more financial and military support for Egypt. Moreover, the new American administration is still at the stage of mapping the region, and for now would prefer to listen rather than rush in to take a concrete stance on tricky topics such as banning the Muslim Brotherhood or handling complex partners in the region
With mutual chemistry and joint goals as his powerful tools, President Sisi may achieve some of his aims from the visit, but is unlikely to achieve them all. He may find sympathetic ears in DC, but with little action.