The April 9 killing of 49 Coptic Christian worshippers in two suicide bombings in Tanta and Alexandria was generally portrayed in media outlets as a setback for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi after a triumphant week when he visited the United States. But while the terrorist attacks were a tragic ending, the time that Sisi spent in Washington was far more difficult than reports suggested.
The Egyptian and Western media had firmly fixed narratives about Sisi’s April 2–6 visit to the U.S. capital. They contrasted Sisi’s treatment by President Donald Trump—who said Sisi was doing a “fantastic job in a very difficult situation”—with that of his predecessor Barack Obama. For the Egyptian pro-government media, Sisi’s visit was a victory lap, during which he was showered with honors and promised enhanced U.S. assistance and cooperation. For much of the American media, however, the visit was all about Trump’s abandonment of the supposedly human rights-oriented agenda of the Obama administration.
While there were elements of truth to both of these narratives, neither was quite accurate and both missed the crucial back story: that Sisi got his photo op but left Washington empty-handed in terms of assistance commitments. Moreover, interlocutors other than Trump himself—some of them with significant leverage over foreign assistance—raised human rights issues, both on and off camera. If that were not enough, the escalating Syria situation left Sisi on the horns of a dilemma about whether to tack closer to the U.S. or Russia in his foreign policy.
Sisi’s original intention was to ask for much more than a photo op. He was seeking, among other things, assurances of increased bilateral military and economic assistance, restoration of the cash flow financing mechanism, a special arrangement enjoyed only by Israel that allows multiyear advance contracts for U.S. defense material, and designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization by the United States. Regarding the Brotherhood, hints emerged through U.S. media outlets before Sisi’s arrival that the Trump administration had put designation on the backburner after U.S. government analysts warned it might not hold up in court.
Regarding military and economic assistance, the strongest hint that the Trump administration made no specific commitments to Sisi came from an unnamed U.S. official: “He’s going to be disappointed because he wants more assistance and he’s not going to get it.” The official added that it was not yet clear whether Egypt would escape a reduction in its foreign aid as part of the Trump administration’s plan to cut the overall State Department budget by 28.7 percent.
Indeed it is not at all certain yet what the approach of Trump and his administration will be to foreign assistance (other than to Israel), which will form one small part of an extended chess game between the administration and Congress over the coming months. Intriguingly, it seems likely that the Trump administration encouraged a recent Saudi rapprochement with Egypt (as well as with Iraq). Saudi leaders announced on March 16, just two days after Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman lunched with Trump at the White House, that they would resume valuable monthly oil deliveries to Egypt, which had been suspended in autumn 2016 after a series of misunderstandings between Sisi and his Saudi patrons. If Trump felt that he had already done enough for Sisi after that, it would go along with a sentiment the president tweeted out on August 18, 2013: “Let the Arab countries take care of Egypt-they have more to gain and plenty of money. It’s time for the U.S. to stop being stupid. NO DOLLARS.”
In the end, it is unlikely that Trump would actually cut off all U.S. assistance to Egypt. Most of that assistance is spent, after all, at defense plants in the United States that employ thousands of Americans. But whatever Trump decides to do regarding assistance, he will need the cooperation of the U.S. Congress. And that is where Sisi ran into displeasure regarding his country’s human rights record.
The U.S. Senate greeted Sisi’s arrival with a resolution cosponsored by a number of senators with foreign affairs responsibilities. It laid down some markers about human rights concerns in Egypt, including the excessive use of force, poor prison conditions, and forced disappearances. During Sisi’s visit, Senator Marco Rubio delivered a blistering speech on the Senate floor enumerating human rights abuses, accompanied by a photo of detained American Aya Hijazy. Several senators also wrote to Trump, asking him to raise the Hijazy case with Sisi.
The Egyptian president’s meeting with Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain during the visit was brief, ending uncharacteristically without photos or statements. The two senators (who chair the Appropriations and Armed Forces Committees respectively, key players in providing military aid) have repeatedly expressed concerns about Sisi’s campaign against Egyptian and American non-governmental organizations, and have pledged to impose conditions on future assistance to Egypt.
As Sisi departed from Washington on April 6, U.S. strikes against a Syrian airbase following the chemical weapons attack against the town of Khan Sheikhoun created terrible dilemmas for the Egyptian leader: Should he support Trump, his new best friend, or Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom he has built close ties? Should he side with the Saudis, who had just resumed oil deliveries to Egypt, or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, for whom Sisi has clear sympathy?
Initial Egyptian government reactions tried to split the difference by condemning “polarization” in the United Nations regarding Syria. However, such a fence-straddling posture will become increasingly difficult and potentially impossible to maintain should the conflict continue, especially as Egypt currently holds a seat on the UN Security Council.
All in all, Sisi’s visit to Washington delivered him a public relations boost, but it was no cakewalk. And Egyptian assessments of the visit, and the relationship with Trump, might well change if it becomes clear that Sisi is unlikely to get any more assistance—and might even get less—from the new administration than he got from Obama. If Sisi is seen at home as not being able to deliver increased assistance from the United States, this could potentially affect the degree of support he enjoys from his most important constituency—the military—in the coming year as he prepares for another presidential bid in 2018.