Amidst the anticipation of the first visit of an Egyptian president to Washington DC since 2009, there were a number of articles on Abdal Fattah El-Sisi’s visit to the White House in the first week of April. Much of the analysis was about what the Trump administration should want from Cairo. But the harsh reality may be that the Trump administration has not reached a point to be ready and know what to ask. Certainly, on a broad variety of foreign policy priorities, it is not clear what US president Donald Trump wants either from Sisi in particular, or from American allies in the Arab world, making it rather difficult to gauge if the Egypt-USA relationship was ‘successful’ or not.
In assessing the trip, however, there are a few observations that can be made by simply this: what changed through the trip, or as the result of the trip, that would have been different had the trip not taken place? Frankly, not very much.
On the important and valuable point of human rights, for example, there are a number of criticisms that human rights organizations, whether Egyptian, regional or international, have made. Improvements around accountability, security sector or judicial reform are needed, as they have been for years, but little was expected, or could have been expected from this trip. Donald Trump has hardly expressed concern about this issue in Egypt. In real terms, perhaps not so much has changed since the last presidential visit of 2009. Then, human rights activists argued that the Obama administration’s policy was similar to that of the preceding Clinton administration—where “no real action took place.” Trump’s main difference with the Clinton administration, or the Obama administration, in that regard, is not issuing public statements—and Cairo can expect the absence of such statements to be a hallmark of the Trump era. But, that would have been the case with or without a visit—so, not very much has been altered.
Another point may have been the much vaunted ‘normalization’ of Cairo in the international community—a normalization that was temporarily put into question in 2013, after the forced removal of then Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi and the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, from whence Morsi came. Sisi’s presence in the White House—something quite visible, and something quite impossible to consider under the Obama administration, could be viewed as a turning point.
But that turning point did not come with Sisi’s handshake with Trump—the turning point had already happened, years earlier. Following the military’s arrest of Morsi in 2013, and the violent dispersal of the pro-Morsi sit-ins 6 weeks later, Cairo’s normalization was indeed questionable in the international community. That, nevertheless, did not last long. The suspension of Egypt from the African Union lasted less than a year. The partial withholding of some aid from DC to Cairo, likewise, was eventually lifted by the Obama administration. Egypt even managed to secure—with little opposition—a seat on the UN Security Council in 2016. If normalization was a question, it was answered long before Donald Trump entered the White House.
There is an outstanding change that the Obama administration did perform in terms of US-Egypt relations, and that was the ending of ‘cash-flow-financing’ for military purchases. That was a marked development—and one that no doubt, many in Cairo were hoping would be restored to the status quo ante. But the Trump administration has shown no signs of rolling back Obama’s decision in this regard—and that appears to still be the case following the visit.
There was talk earlier this year of the Trump administration designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, which would been welcomed in Cairo. But the designation discussion has been shelved by the Trump administration, following a series of interventions within the Beltway from inside and outside of government, opposing the designation. That decision may be revisited in the future—but if so, it is not going to be as a result of the Sisi visit. Trump’s decision will depend on other factors.
There are two ‘unintended consequences’ from the trip, nonetheless. Considering Trump’s repeated negative statements about Muslims in general, and not simply particular types of political Islamists, the Sisi visit has troubled a narrative that is pervasive within the Trump administration. The likes of Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and senior counselor, have posited bigoted notions around Islam as a religion, in stark ‘clash of civilisations’ terms. Sisi’s administration, for all its critiques around political Islamism, continues to uphold that Islam is peaceful and not essentially extreme or radical—and Trump’s warm embrace of Sisi hardly disputed that. On the contrary, ironic as it may be, Trump’s validation of Sisi stands in stark contrast to Bannon’s vision.
There is one other, and perhaps significant, unintended consequence of the visit: putting to rest the idea that a Sisi-led Egypt is deserting the Western axis. A two-day visit of Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, to Cairo in 2015 raised queries in that regard—for certainly, there was a great deal of warmth in that trip. Moscow is no doubt less than pleased to see that its public overtures to Cairo have failed to interrupt the US-Egypt relationship—in quite obvious and public ways, Sisi confirmed that the American-Egyptian connection remains a great priority. Back in Cairo, Egyptian media were also praising the trip, thus indirectly confirming much the same.
Again, there are many things that DC could have wanted to see from Cairo. But while Trump made clear—in rather undiplomatic and ill-advised ways—to far closer American allies such as Germany what those demands might be, he apparently did not have much to ask of Sisi. Might Sisi have been able, and even willing, to promise and truly deliver certain changes himself in response to ‘asks’ from Trump? As yet, that remains unclear—and seeing as they do not appear to have been asked anyway, it remains an academic point.
Will there be more changes to the US-Egypt relationship in the future? Perhaps—but if so, those changes will probably be very difficult to date back to this trip.
Dr. H.A. Hellyer is a nonresident senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.