Sisi’s visit to the US: The hopes and the reality

Egypt’s Sisi has long been hopeful about Donald Trump’s presidency, but his optimism may soon be curbed.

Sisi Trump AP
Trump has yet to offer any reassurances to the Sisi regime on the most pressing issues, writes Elmenshawy [AP]

On Monday, President Trump will welcome Egyptian President General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to the White House – the first time an Egyptian president will have visited Washington since Hosni Mubarak’s visit in 2010. 

Although Egypt’s state media is widely optimistic about the prospects of the visit, Sisi is likely plagued by creeping concerns and frustrations in light of Trump’s actions since his inauguration a little more than two months ago. 

Encouraged by Sisi’s meeting with Trump in New York City last September, which was accompanied by the release of an official statement from Trump’s campaign emphasising that “under a Trump Administration, the United States of America will be a loyal friend, not simply an ally, that Egypt can count on in the days and years ahead”, the Sisi regime developed unrealistic expectations for what a Trump administration would mean for Egypt

A transcript released following a phone call between the two presidents three days after Trump’s inauguration indicated that the new US president praised Cairo’s efforts to combat terrorism and reiterated his commitment to continue providing military aid to this country. These promises also increased Egypt’s hopes about a mutually beneficial relationship with the Trump administration.

Sisi also believed that the incoming Trump administration would treat Egypt favourably following Egypt’s decision, after a phone call between Trump and Sisi in late December, to withdraw a draft resolution it had submitted to the UN Security Council condemning Israeli settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian Territories.

State of mass confusion

Despite its attempts to win the new US administration’s good graces, Trump has yet to offer any reassurances to the Sisi regime on the most pressing issues.

The 2018 budget that Trump recently submitted to Congress, which entails a massive 29 percent cut (from $38bn to $27.1bn) to the State Department’s budget – from which American aid to Egypt is derived – left Cairo in a state of mass confusion. 

Only securing Israel’s $3.1bn annual aid, American officials have indicated that funds earmarked for Egypt, Jordan, and other countries are still being evaluated – which must serve as a significant shock to Cairo’s leaders.

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After all, Egypt was optimistic upon Trump’s arrival in Washington, expecting that his administration would restore the preferred method of financing arms purchases – known as cashflow – favourable to the Egyptian government.

Economics, political challenges within Egyptian society, and the ongoing counterterrorism dilemma in the Sinai leave no significant cards in hand for Egypt to play with the new Trump administration, making Cairo's prospects even worse.


Restrictions on military aid

Former President Obama had temporarily suspended the substantial military aid Egypt receives from the US since Sisi’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood after rising to power in 2013.

In so doing, the Obama administration prevented Egypt from securing forward contracts for large military deals and revoked its rights of first refusal and subsequent payment.  

After a year-plus long freeze, Obama restored aid to Egypt in 2015, but he refused to allow the country to buy military equipment on credit and earmarked future aid for specific activities related to US counterterrorism goals.

When Trump moved into the White House, some overly optimistic Egyptian officials speculated that he would increase Egypt’s $1.3bn worth of annual military aid, allowing it to quickly purchase and take delivery of more advanced weaponry.

However, contrary to Egypt’s hopes, Trump has yet to offer any indications that he will change any of the conditions Obama imposed on Cairo in 2015.

Sisi must also be agitated by the reference to a future role for the Egyptian military in the regional military alliance formation, which was suggested during discussions on confronting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), the intractable crises in Syria and Iraq, and combating “Shia” Iranian influence.

Since Egypt’s army is a national, non-sectarian army composed of Muslims and Copts, joining such a formation could be risky. 

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This point is linked to reports indicating that, in the quest to determine the makeup of Middle Eastern military alliances, US officials have not ruled out asking states such as Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco to contribute thousands of their own soldiers and enter into US-directed alliances with the Gulf states to confront Iran’s influence, preserve stability in the Middle East and the Gulf, and perform an active role in the broader regional war on terror. These conversations also seek a broader anti-terror role for Sisi’s army, which to date has been limited only to Egyptian territory.  

The Muslim Brotherhood ban

Egypt is also frustrated by Trump’s stalled promise to confront the Muslim Brotherhood. Like the Egyptian regime, Trump is hostile towards Islamist political groups – particularly the Muslim Brotherhood – and during his campaign had accused Hillary Clinton of helping “force out a friendly regime in Egypt and replace it with the radical Muslim Brotherhood”.

Since Trump’s inauguration, Cairo has welcomed initiatives adopted in Congress to pass a draft resolution designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terror group and hailed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s testimony to the Senate in which he equated the Brotherhood to ISIL and al-Qaeda.

A hopeful Egypt pressed the Trump administration to expedite designation of the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, which would significantly affect the group’s legitimacy, sources of financing, and international influence; nonetheless, Trump has yet to move in this direction.

He is still able to surprise us whenever he wants by issuing executive orders but Trump has yet to list the entire Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, primarily owing to the serious and costly regional consequences such a decision would have for Washington. Moreover, though recent developments suggest that Trump may in fact designate the Egyptian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, he does not appear very determined to do so. As such, some experts speculate that Trump may place only two Islamist militant groups, the Hasm Movement and the Revolution Brigade, on the terror list – avoiding altogether a decision to designate the broader Muslim Brotherhood organisation as a terrorist group.

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In light of the heightened tensions in the Middle East, Trump’s team realises Cairo cannot contribute much to solve the major regional crisis. Although the Trump administration praised President Sisi’s call for “reform and religious revolution within Islam”, and Egypt’s recent loan and aid agreements with the IMF and the World Bank, Trump’s team understands that Egypt’s status is diminishing while the regional roles of states such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Turkey are expanding.

In sum, economics, political challenges within Egyptian society, and the counterterrorism dilemma in the Sinai leave no significant cards for Egypt to play with the new Trump administration, making Cairo’s prospects even worse.

Mohamed Elmenshawy is Washington Bureau Chief for Alaraby Television Network and a columnist for Shorouk, an Egyptian Daily. 

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.