- - Thursday, October 29, 2020

CAIRO — From the time he first met the candidate in the fall of 2016 through the last days of the 2020 presidential campaign, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has promoted himself as one of Donald Trump’s best friends on the international stage.

“We expressed our congratulations in advance of the last election, and we expressed them now before the next one,” Mr. el-Sissi said last year, just moments after Mr. Trump dubbed him “my favorite dictator.”

“Our relationship started before the campaign, continued through the campaign and afterward,” Mr. el-Sissi told Mr. Trump and reporters assembled in France for the August 2019 Group of Seven summit of major industrial nations.

Now Egypt’s president — like many of his counterparts in the Arab world who have thrived under renewed attention from Washington under Mr. Trump — is trying to game out the possible replacement of his patron in the White House after the election Tuesday.

In Amman, King Abdullah II hopes for closer coordination with a Biden administration. He has been largely sidelined by Mr. Trump’s Middle East policy — spearheaded by White House aide and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner — that forged historic direct ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and, most recently, Sudan, without securing tangible gains for the Palestinians, who make up at least half of Jordan’s population.

Mr. el-Sissi, meanwhile, is bracing for increased scrutiny by a Democratic administration.

Aides close to Mr. Biden already have resumed criticism of Egypt’s military government for human rights abuses and have pressed Cairo to revive the “road map to democracy” abandoned after Egypt changed its constitution last year to allow Mr. el-Sissi to stay in power at least through 2030.

“The Egyptian administration generally prefers Trump’s policies since we have achieved understanding in many political and economic [areas],” said Gehad Auda, professor of political science and international relations at Helwan University near Cairo.

“Just this weekend, Trump boosted Egypt’s position on negotiations over the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, going so far as to say he would understand why Cairo might want to ‘blow it up,’” said Mr. Auda. Like many others, he worries that the faster Ethiopia moves on the massive hydroelectric project, the less water from the Nile will flow to Egypt.

He, like other political scientists, also points to Egypt’s diplomatic role in Mr. Trump’s “Deal of the Century” framework to advance Arab-Israeli peace while sidestepping the question of Palestinian statehood. Egypt pioneered the recognition of the Jewish state in the wake of the 1979 Camp David Accords, but few of its Arab neighbors followed suit.

“This will create a good investment climate,” Mr. Auda said. “Add that to the appointment of the Egyptian nominee, Mahmoud Mohieldin, as executive director of the International Monetary Fund, and we see the el-Sissi administration receiving tangible rewards from Trump.”

Egypt has been the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid since its peace treaty with Israel in 1979.

Tensions with Obama

Even so, it still rankles Cairo that the Obama administration placed a temporary freeze on military assistance in 2013 after the military and then-Defense Minister el-Sissi ousted the democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, a leader of the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

Mr. el-Sissi’s supporters never forgave Mr. Obama for questioning the legitimacy of the former field marshal’s elevation to the presidency in 2014. They also don’t miss what they say were constant critiques by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her successor, John F. Kerry.

“We suffered from many problems during the era of former President Barack Obama,” said Said Fayez, a 42-year-old Cairo lawyer who made his first trip to the U.S. last year on a program funded by the State Department under Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

“The Trump era witnessed alignment with the el-Sissi administration, a renewed awareness of Egypt’s regional role and the leader’s rights to pursue independent policies without American interference and imposition of radical Islamic movements that Barack Obama supported,” Mr. Fayez said.

Still, Mr. Fayez acknowledged, “I have reservations about Trump’s lack of support for personal and political freedoms, which are more central concerns for” Mr. Biden.

The former vice president has signaled strong objection to Mr. el-Sissi’s human rights record. In July, Mr. Biden slammed the Egyptian president for the arrest, torture and exiling of activists.

“No more blank checks for Trump’s favorite dictator,” Mr. Biden tweeted.

Last week, a group of 56 Democratic lawmakers reinforced Mr. Biden’s message in a formal letter to Mr. el-Sissi, urging the release of human rights activists, lawyers, journalists and other prisoners of conscience.

The letter chastised the Egyptian leader for the tens of thousands who have been imprisoned during his administration. Many remain in jail awaiting trial for periods far longer than the legal minimum of two years.

“We are disappointed not just with Trump. We fear the shrinking role America plays in defending free speech, promoting women’s equality and emphasizing development along with security concerns,” said Ahmed Samih, director at the Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies, a human rights organization shut down by Egyptian authorities in 2016. “Trump has no respect for human rights, the United Nations or even real open markets.

“I don’t just fear what four more years of him mean for the Arab world but also the American people,” he added. “If Trump is reelected, there will be no limits on him, and he will act like a king in the U.S, as a new MBS,” said Mr. Samih, referring to hard-charging Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Like Mr. el-Sissi, the crown prince, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, has firmly consolidated power, crushed dissent and detained rivals — all while cultivating Riyadh’s privileged status under Mr. Trump as a key regional ally and bulwark against Iran.

King Salman, 84, has largely given his 35-year-old heir a free hand to shape domestic economic reforms and a foreign policy realignment that puts a priority on curbing Iran’s nuclear program over traditional concerns such as the plight of the Palestinians.

Trump and the young

Many younger Arabs across the region, meanwhile, tend to see Mr. Trump’s presidency and the coming U.S. vote through the prism of their frustrated aspirations for economic security and personal liberties.

Along with de-emphasizing human rights, the administration’s transactional approach to the region’s authoritarian leaders and its clear tilt toward Israeli policies on Palestinian independence and the status of Jerusalem have led the “Arab Street” to prefer Mr. Biden.

A YouGov poll released Sunday of some 18 Middle Eastern and North African countries found 39% backed Mr. Biden, while only 12% preferred Mr. Trump.

When asked which candidate would be better for the Arab world, the largest share of respondents (49%) said neither candidate would be, but Mr. Biden (40%) was considered a better option than Mr. Trump (12%).

But popular sentiment in Egypt and elsewhere often struggles to break through given regional media that are largely controlled by the government and largely favorable to Mr. Trump.

“President Trump has been one of the greatest [presidents] in American history,” said Mohammed Salem Al Ghamdi, a columnist for the Saudi daily Al-Medina. “His business mentality and expertise have allowed him to create and implement a strategy with great results.

“In comparison, the Obama administration showed indecisiveness accompanied with a serious inability to express commitment to supporting allies and stopping enemies from continuing to inflict economic damage on the U.S. and its allies alike.”

Mr. Al Ghamdi said most Saudis tend to favor and expect a second Trump term, but should Mr. Biden achieve an electoral victory, they expect the long history of U.S.-Saudi ties to survive.

“Nevertheless, the excitement [over the] potential of a stronger alliance between the U.S. and its friends in the Middle East might not be as it would if Trump should win,” he said.

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