- - Monday, April 8, 2019

CAIRO — Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has a much sought-after White House summit Tuesday, hoping it will confer a new level of legitimacy on his presidency as he seeks to cement his hold on power and, human rights groups say, silence any domestic critics who stand in his way.

Although analysts question the timing and intent of hosting the Egyptian leader in the midst of a political crackdown, Mr. el-Sissi will once again be betting that Egypt’s size, military budget and influence in the region will take precedence over human rights concerns.

Egypt’s political capital in Washington is that it is a moderate force in the region and prevents the escalation of military conflict between the Palestinians and Israel in Gaza,” said Sayed Sadek, a political sociology professor at Cairo’s American University.

Michele Dunne, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said President Trump will be hosting the Egyptian leader just two weeks before a national referendum that would increase the army’s influence on politics and essentially allow Mr. el-Sissi, the onetime Army chief who first took power in a coup in 2014, to stay in power through 2034.

“This much we know about dictators: They usually end up overstaying their welcome and brutalizing their own citizens,” Mr. Dunne wrote recently in Politico. “So supporting [Mr. el-Sissi‘s] bid to stay in power for decades will certainly come back to haunt the U.S.”

The White House said Monday that the bilateral meeting will focus on military strategy, combating terrorism and economic development, but that human rights and democracy will not be ignored.

U.S. officials briefing on background ahead of the summit insisted that they have been “very frank and open with our Egyptian counterparts with the importance of continuing to develop Egyptian civil society.” Mr. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, they said, will push for the return of U.S. citizens detained in Egypt and protections for Egypt’s Christian Copts and other religious minorities.

Mr. el-Sissi also arrives in Washington at a delicate time for U.S. policies in the region that Cairo could play a big role in carrying out.

At a minimum, Mr. el-Sissi theoretically provides long-term continuity at the top of Egypt’s power structure, serving historic American interests by expanding the scope of the peace treaty mediated by President Carter and signed in March 1979 by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

After meeting with Mr. Trump, Mr. el-Sissi will attend a Capitol Hill ceremony to present a posthumous award of a Congressional Gold Medal to Jehan Sadat, Sadat’s widow.

But in a sign of the sensitivities to the visit back home, not expected to be in attendance will be Mohammed Anwar Sadat, a nephew of the assassinated president. He is a leading member of the liberal opposition to Mr. el-Sissi’s effort to extend and consolidate his rule.

“These constitutional changes demolish liberties, democracy and the existence of a civil state,” said Mohammed Sadat, who was stripped of his parliamentary seat in 2017 on charges that he leaked “secret information to international institutions” when he criticized Egypt’s human rights record.

Busy time

Mr. el-Sissi visits the White House on the same day that Israelis go to the polls. Most indicators point to a fifth term for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Both men are in the group of Middle Eastern leaders closest to Mr. Trump, and the White House sees the el-Sissi visit as an opportunity to cement “Egypt’s long-standing role as a linchpin of regional stability,” according to a statement last week.

The Trump administration also is preparing to unveil its “Deal of the Century” peace plan after Israeli elections, analysts say.

El-Sissi’s visit is in conjunction with the Israeli elections and the American initiative for peace in the Middle East which will be unveiled soon after,” said Mr. Sadek. “One of the most important points in the agenda of this meeting with Trump is to spell out precisely what is required of Egypt in this initiative and what role it will play.”

Egyptians will be watching closely to see whether and how often the government’s record on human rights and civil liberties surfaces during the Washington trip.

Human Rights Watch estimates at least 60,000 people have been arrested on political grounds in recent years. Mr. el-Sissi denies that these arrests were based on politics.

While most voters in Egypt said they were unaware or unconcerned about the Egyptian president’s visit to Washington, they were increasingly aware of the deteriorating civil rights and economic situation in the country.

“I have been critical from the first moment el-Sissi sat in the seat of power, and I saw his desire to amend the constitution to grant extended presidential terms,” said Michael Youssef, a 37-year-old Uber driver and a former auto spare parts dealer. “I did not participate in the previous presidential elections and certainly will not go to the referendum on the constitutional amendments because everyone in Egypt knows the result in advance.”

The referendum is scheduled to be held before the start of the holy month of Ramadan in May.

Egypt under Mr. el-Sissi has made efforts to liberalize trade, but nontariff barriers continue to present problems for domestic importers. Egypt’s poor and middle class have been hit hard by a withdrawal of energy subsidies and steep inflation driven by a 2016 currency devaluation that essentially cut the value of the Egyptian pound by half.

“The increase in prices and the deteriorating economic situation does not make me enthusiastic about anything [el-Sissi] is doing,” Mr. Youssef said.

Strong bond

Nevertheless, many say the Trump-el-Sissi dynamic is the strongest bond between leaders in Washington and Cairo since the days of Mr. Carter and Sadat.

“The special relationship between President el-Sissi and President Trump was built during the 2016 U.S. elections, and the words exchanged between the two presidents show their admiration for each other’s views and abilities,” said Tarek El Khouly, 34, a freshman member of the Egyptian parliament. “Trump said he would cooperate with anyone in the Middle East to resolve the conflicts and problems left by the Obama administration, and we have witnessed the return of military cooperation between the two sides.”

Mr. El Khouly lauded Mr. el-Sissi for making “difficult economic decisions and undertaking necessary reforms” to secure a $12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund and launch a massive infrastructure drive, even as the military battled an Islamic State-inspired terrorist campaign targeting soldiers and civilians in the Sinai Peninsula and against government and Christian targets in the Nile Valley.

“Changing leaders in the middle of the journey to restructure our state and economy just doesn’t make any sense,” said Mr. El Khouly, a supporter of the proposed amendments that would give the president further power over the legislature, including the right to appoint members to a new upper chamber and to nominate his own judges to Egyptian courts.

Mr. el-Sissi’s supporters in the U.S. say they are aware of the criticism against the Egyptian president’s policies but add that Cairo has defenders in the U.S. beyond the Oval Office.

“Those criticisms that come from Washington will not disappear, but there are also interest groups such as the American business community, friendly lobbies, and the security and defense community who understand that Egypt is a vital partner,” said Karim Darwish, a 51-year-old chairman of the parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee. “We want President el-Sissi to complete his economic strategy for 2030, and America knows we believe in peace and will spare no effort to achieve it for the entire region.”

⦁ Tom Howell Jr. contributed to this report from Washington.

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