April 3, 2017 | Policy Brief

Trump Offers Sisi Praise, but Unclear What Else

April 3, 2017 | Policy Brief

Trump Offers Sisi Praise, but Unclear What Else

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi traveled to Washington on Monday for his first-ever White House meeting, his first meeting with President Donald Trump since the November election and the first such visit by an Egyptian head of state in nearly eight years. In terms of optics, the meeting was an unqualified success for both sides. Trump offered his guest the unflinching U.S. support that Cairo had felt it had missed during the Obama years, while Sisi praised his host’s “unique personality” and commitment to fighting extremism. Beyond photo ops and warm words, however, tangible outcomes from the visit remain unclear.

Trump opened his remarks by praising his guest as someone “very close to me” ever since their first meeting in September. Trump lauded him for doing a “fantastic job in a very difficult situation,” echoing his remarks after their last meeting that Sisi was a “fantastic guy” who had “wiped out” the Islamic State in his country. “You have a great friend and ally in the United States and in me,” Trump said, extending an open palm. Sisi gamely reciprocated, noting that after their September meeting he had “bet” on Trump becoming president, hailing his counterpart’s commitment to countering the “evil ideology” of terrorism, and assuring him that Egypt is “always beside” him in that mission.

The two leaders then shared a private meeting and working lunch. Details of those discussions will surface only over the coming days, if at all, but three issues topped the agenda.

The first is aid. Cairo’s economy is teetering on the brink, and Sisi was likely seeking assurances that U.S. assistance would remain untouched, given reports that Washington was considering trimming it as part of broader cuts to foreign aid. Second, Sisi probably sought the reinstitution of cash-flow financing, a decades-long aid framework suspended by the Obama administration in 2015 that let Cairo use money “on credit” up to ten years in advance to buy big-ticket items like tanks and fighter jets.

Second was terrorism, but the talks probably yielded little beyond shared assurances that Islamic State, and extremism generally, must be defeated. The U.S. military has valuable guerrilla warfare experience that could help Cairo quell an ISIS insurgency in Sinai, but Trump’s cost-cutting mood means Washington is unlikely to offer new guidance or tools that Egypt’s proud, change-resistant military would almost certainly dismiss anyway.

Finally, the two leaders would have discussed the Mideast peace process. Israeli and Gulf media reported in recent weeks that Sisi would bring a peace plan to Washington. The plan, drafted in conjunction with the Palestinians and Jordan and based on the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, would reportedly include a long-delayed release of Palestinian prisoners and a complete halt in Israeli building in the West Bank. Trump is scheduled to host the leaders of Jordan and the Palestinian Authority over the coming weeks, and the plan reportedly envisions a U.S.-led peace conference in the fall. There too, however, reality is likely to intervene: Israel’s right-wing government is almost guaranteed to reject a complete building freeze that includes East Jerusalem and heavily populated settlement blocs.

The question then is what, beyond optics and rhetoric, the two sides achieved with Monday’s visit. On aid, the most Sisi can hope for is maintaining current levels and potentially reinstituting cash-flow financing. On terrorism, probably little of substance was agreed to. And the Egyptian leader’s attempts to facilitate Middle East peace have similarly scant chances of succeeding.

And yet none of this means the visit was for naught. Optics affect public opinion, a metric to which both leaders are keenly attuned. In that sense, both sides’ primary objectives – burnishing their diplomatic credentials and appearing tough on terror – will have been met.

Oren Kessler is deputy director for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @OrenKessler