Washington 'reboots' Egypt ties after years of tension

This is file photo - US President Donald Trump (L) meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at the Plaza Hotel on 19 September 2016 in New York (AFP)

CAIRO: Egypt's President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi meets his counterpart and admirer Donald Trump in Washington tomorrow for a "reboot" of relations following years of tension with the American president's predecessor. The former reality television star and tycoon has made no secret of his admiration for Sisi, an ex-army chief who overthrew Egypt's Islamist president in 2013 and cracked down on his supporters.

Mohamed Morsi's ouster, a year after he had won Egypt's first democratic election, and the ensuing crackdown on Islamists prompted then US president Barack Obama to suspend military aid to Cairo temporarily. But when Sisi meets Trump during his first state visit to Washington, he will see a partner who better appreciates his "mission" to fight Islamists and militants, without Obama's hand-wringing over human rights.

Sisi has "led Egypt's campaign to defeat a long-running terrorist threat in the Sinai", a US administration official said in a briefing on Friday. Trump "wants to use President Al-Sisi's visit to reboot the bilateral connection", he said. Sisi left for Washington yesterday and will meet cabinet members and lawmakers ahead of tomorrow's meeting with Trump, his office said.

When the two met in September, they walked away praising one another, with Sisi saying Trump shows "deep and great understanding" of the region. And Trump gushed about his "chemistry" with Sisi. "He's a fantastic guy. Took control of Egypt, and he really took control of it," he told Fox Business of the period after Morsi's overthrow which saw hundreds of Islamist protesters killed and thousands detained.

Ahead of Sisi's trip, five US senators announced they would introduce a bipartisan resolution supporting Egypt, but demanding an end to a crackdown on civil society groups and the release of American-Egyptian Aya Hejazy. The US administration official said Washington will approach rights issues in a "private, more discreet way". It will also push for the release of Hejazy, who ran an NGO for homeless children and has been detained since 2014 on human trafficking charges. Her verdict is expected on April 16.

Over the past three years, Sisi has met a trickle of delegations from American think-tanks and other groups, drumming home the importance of supporting him. Cairo had demanded Western countries take a tougher stance on Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood movement, something Trump's administration has suggested it could consider. "Beyond Sisi being thrilled that Trump replaced Obama, and the opportunity to turn a page, this is Egypt trying to reassert itself in a more central way to US Middle East strategy," said Issandr El-Amrani, the International Crisis Group's North Africa director.

Egypt - one of two Arab countries to have a peace treaty with Israel - had traditionally played a central role in US regional alliances, in return receiving $1.3 billion in annual military aid. Cairo has also mediated between Israel and the Palestinians. Sisi's office said he will broach the issue with Trump, who has confusingly suggested that he is fine with either a two-state or a one-state solution to the conflict.

Sisi's trip comes ahead of Trump's talks on Wednesday with King Abdullah II of Jordan and after a tentative invitation to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to visit. "We are going to be discussing the general outlines of our approach with the Middle East peace process," the US official said on Friday.

Although Sisi may be delighted about having Trump's ear, he may yet be disappointed. "The focus (for Trump) is on areas where Egypt has little relevance, like Iraq and Syria," Amrani said. Egypt is part of the international coalition against the Islamic State group, but is bogged down fighting the militants' franchise in the Sinai Peninsula, where they have killed hundreds of soldiers and policemen.

Western officials who requested anonymity say Egypt is primarily interested in advanced military hardware it believes Western countries are withholding. Cairo also wants conventional equipment that Washington believes is not useful for a counter-insurgency campaign. But it remains unclear whether Trump, who wants to downsize foreign aid and cut the State Department's budget, will maintain current financing to Egypt. The US administration official said Washington wants to "fully support" Egypt. But "the discussions about the details of the budget process and how that's going to be allocated with the input from the Department of State is still an ongoing process," he said. - AFP