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‘He’s doing a great job’: Trump embraces Egypt’s autocratic president

El-Sissi, 64, a former general who took power in a military coup in 2013, is seeking to amend the Egyptian Constitution to allow him to run for two more six-year terms, which would keep him in power until 2034.

By: New York Times | Washington | Updated: April 10, 2019 9:11:11 am
‘He’s doing a great job’: Trump embraces Egypt’s autocratic president President Donald Trump while meeting with President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt in the Oval Office of the White House, in Washington. (Tom Brenner/The New York Times)

Written by Mark Landler

President Donald Trump welcomed Egypt’s president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, to the White House on Tuesday, and bestowed on his ally what he most eagerly sought: a ringing endorsement of his strongman rule.

El-Sissi, 64, a former general who took power in a military coup in 2013, is seeking to amend the Egyptian Constitution to allow him to run for two more six-year terms, which would keep him in power until 2034.

When Trump was asked about the amendments, he professed not to know anything about them, but declared: “I can just tell you he’s doing a great job. Great president.”

El-Sissi’s visit came on the same day that another key ally of Trump’s in the Middle East, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, was facing voters in a tight election. In the weeks leading up to that vote, the president tried to shore up Netanyahu’s fortunes with a series of gestures, chief among them US recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

It also came as Trump called a third ally, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, who has been under a cloud since reports that he ordered the killing in October of a Saudi dissident journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.

Trump and Crown Prince Mohammed discussed Saudi Arabia’s “critical role” in stabilizing the region, the campaign to isolate Iran and “the importance of human right issues,” according to a White House statement.

For Egypt’s leader, Trump offered only the trappings of an Oval Office welcome, though one with flashing cameras and looming boom mics. Back home, where el-Sissi has methodically stifled dissent and tightened his grip on power, that could prove more than enough validation.

“The single and only reason for President Sissi to visit the White House right now is to obtain a strong endorsement from President Trump to stay in power,” said Amy Hawthorne, deputy director of research at the Project on Middle East Democracy.

Before their session, Trump said the two men would discuss trade and counterterrorism. He said nothing publicly about Egypt’s human rights record, which was always checkered but has deteriorated under el-Sissi, who has brutally suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood and turned Egypt into a society in which a person can be arrested over an objectionable Facebook post. Trump’s daughter Ivanka also met with el-Sissi to discuss the empowerment of women.

Donald Trump said nothing about several Americans currently detained in Egypt. Earlier in the day, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo raised the issue with el-Sissi, according to the State Department.

For his part, el-Sissi said relations between Egypt and the United States had never been stronger. “All the credit goes to you, Mr. President,” he said through a translator. “Thank you very much for your support on all fronts.”

In fact, some analysts said, the U.S. alliance with Egypt is at an awkward moment. Trump has focused most of his energy in the region on assembling an Israeli and Persian Gulf alliance against Iran.

“When you think of Trump’s agenda in the Middle East, Egypt doesn’t offer that much,” said Brian Katulis, an expert on Egypt and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “What’s interesting to me is that Trump — who is always asking ‘What’s in it for us?’ — is even doing this meeting.”

Moreover, Egypt, which still receives roughly $1.3 billion a year in U.S. military aid, recently agreed to buy 20 fighter jets from Russia, potentially exposing individual Egyptians to US sanctions.

Trump’s decision on the Golan Heights rankled Egyptian officials, as did his earlier order to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Both moves run counter to the spirit of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, brokered 40 years ago by President Jimmy Carter.

They could also make it harder for el-Sissi to voice wholehearted public support for the Israeli-Palestinian peace plan being drafted by Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner.

The administration has said it would present the plan sometime after the Israeli elections, but the White House, like the Israeli public, will have to await the results of Tuesday’s vote to determine whether Netanyahu or his opponent Benny Gantz, are able to form a governing coalition.

There is less suspense in Egyptian politics these days. Analysts said el-Sissi’s constitutional amendments, which also include a provision that would expand the military’s role, have drawn no public enthusiasm. But the electoral system is set up so that they can prevail with a simple majority even if voter turnout is low.

To coincide with el-Sissi’s visit, his critics began an online petition Tuesday to oppose the amendments. The website was quickly blocked inside Egypt; the government has previously blocked several other independent or critical websites or online publications.

But the petition remained accessible outside Egypt and the website counter indicated that more than 67,000 people had endorsed it — a number that could not be confirmed.

President Barack Obama kept el-Sissi at a distance. But it was his second White House invitation from Trump, who has obviously established a rapport with him. At a meeting in Saudi Arabia in May 2017, the two lavished praise on each other, with Trump even declaring: “Love your shoes. Boy, those shoes.”

Some of Trump’s affection may be explained by his general affinity for strongmen. At a recent speech to Republican supporters, the president recalled an exchange he claimed to have had with President Xi Jinping of China, who, like el-Sissi, pushed for an extension of his term.

Trump said he referred to Xi as a king, which prompted the Chinese leader to demur that he was only a president.

“I said, ‘No, you’re president for life, and therefore you’re king,’ ” Trump said he replied.

If el-Sissi succeeds in his drive to extend his term, he would serve as Egypt’s president until the age of 80 — unless he changes the Constitution again.

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