The U.S. relationship with Egypt has never been better, President Trump insisted Tuesday, using a White House meeting with President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi to focus on progress on trade and terrorism instead of the onetime military leader’s crackdown on political opponents and dissent, as some had hoped.
Mr. Trump brushed aside a looming national constitutional referendum in Egypt that effectively would allow Mr. el-Sissi, who ousted a popularly elected Islamist leader in a 2013 coup, to remain in power until 2034.
“I don’t know about the effort, I can just tell you he’s doing a great job,” Mr. Trump said while seated beside Mr. el-Sissi in the Oval Office.
A senior Democratic senator chided the president, saying Mr. Trump appears to have a blind spot when it comes to international strongmen, though Mr. Trump said it was important to focus on bilateral cooperation in his meeting with Egypt, which the U.S. views as a stabilizing force in the volatile Middle East and a key player in any Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
“We’ve never had a better relationship, Egypt and the United States, than we do right now,” Mr. Trump said. “A lot of progress has been made in a lot of different ways in terms of terrorism and other things with Egypt.”
Mr. el-Sissi agreed, saying Washington and Cairo had a chance to make a “quantum leap” and improve things even further during talks.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told lawmakers at Senate hearing on Tuesday that Mr. el-Sissi has been as “beacon in the Middle East” for religious freedom and crucial partner in disrupting terror plots, even if he could do more to promote a free press.
“We talked about these very issues yesterday, asking him to do better,” Mr. Pompeo testified at a budget hearing.
The White House said after the meeting that the two leaders had a “frank” private discussion behind closed doors focused on the recent turmoil in Libya, regional water issues, the “threat posed by the Muslim Brotherhood” — Mr. el-Sissi has cracked down on the polarizing group — and Ivanka Trump’s economic empowerment initiative for women.
Mr. el-Sissi was elected in 2014 after retiring from a lengthy military career, a year after engineering the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi.
Mr. el-Sissi won reelection in 2018, and he is scheduled to step aside in 2020, though lawmakers are pushing a measure to extend the presidential four-year term to six years each, and let Mr. el-Sissi serve another two.
Mr. Trump sidestepped a reporter’s question about whether Mr. el-Sissi should be allowed to stay in the presidency for over a decade more, saying, “I think he’s doing a great job.”
But Sen. Patrick Leahy, Vermont Democrat, complained Tuesday that Mr. el-Sissi stacked the deck against his political opponents last year and continues to detain writers, students, human rights lawyers, social activists and journalists who criticize his rule.
Egypt “has chosen a dangerous path that is typical of paranoid, autocratic regimes” under Mr. el-Sissi, Mr. Leahy charged, and Mr. Trump is abetting that shift.
“It is no secret that President Trump gets along best with autocrats who rely on repression to stay in power,” Mr. Leahy said. “President el-Sissi is now seeking to change the Constitution so he can retain control for another 25 years. He and [socialist] Venezuelan President Maduro have a great deal in common. Yet one is labeled a ‘tyrant’ by the White House, the other a ‘great friend.’”
Mr. Pompeo squared off with Mr. Leahy on Capitol Hill later Tuesday. The secretary said he would not call Mr. el-Sissi a tyrant, and that he could not judge Mr. Trump’s characterization of the Egyptian leader as a “friend.”
“The president gets to choose his own words for how he speaks about these people,” Mr. Pompeo testified.
Human rights groups have repeatedly chided Mr. Trump for cultivating relations with authoritarian leaders with questionable records on human right and civil liberties, including North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and new Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who visited Mr. Trump at the White House last month.