It was as stark a study in contrasts as anyone has seen in many years.
The foreign dictator who was shunned by the previous American president as a repressive autocrat who overthrew a democratically elected government was enthusiastically welcomed to the White House today by the current president as a great friend and “fantastic guy.”
President Barack Obama was highly critical of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi’s violent repression of dissent and human rights abuses. He was never invited to the White House.
President Donald Trump quickly reversed that policy and just before el-Sissi’s arrival Monday morning, the administration let it be known it will no longer focus on human rights issues in Egypt and elsewhere as had Obama and George W. Bush before him. Anything the US government has to say about human rights will be in private, Trump officials said.
Trump was at his most obsequious in welcoming the Egyptian dictator.
“President el-Sissi has been somebody that’s been very close to me from the first time I met him,” said Trump. “We agree on so many things.”
“I just want to let everybody know in case there was any doubt that we are very much behind President el-Sissi. He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation. We are very much behind Egypt and the people of Egypt. The United States has, believe me, backing, and we have strong backing.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is another el-Sissi admirer. He may not a gushing fan-boy like Trump, but he has had high praise for el-Sissi’s close relationship with Israel.
Netanyahu praised al-Sissi’s “courageous leadership” and his “efforts to advance peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”
Reviving the peace process is one item on the agenda at the White House. Another is US aid.
Trump saved the bad news for their private meeting. Egypt is likely to face a cut in its $1.3 billion annual aid package as a result of deep cuts the administration is planning in foreign aid. Administration officials initially said they expect Israel’s aid to be unscathed but lately the word is there may have to be some cuts.
The Obama administration negotiated a 10-year, $38-billion aid package for Israel last year that takes effect later this year. With the cuts proposed by Trump, if Israel’s assistance is to stay in tact, the Jewish state will get more security assistance than the rest of the world combined.
In their Oval Office photo-op, el-Sissi told Trump, “I’ve had a deep appreciation and admiration of your unique personality” and the fact that Trump has been “standing very strong…to counter this evil ideology [Islamist extremism].”
El-Sissi told Trump, “You will find me supporting you very strongly and very earnestly in finding a solution to the problem of the century,” but it was unclear whether he meant the Arab-Israeli conflict or terrorism.
Egypt has been fighting the Muslim Brotherhood in the Sinai, and el-Sissi wants the United States to put it on the terrorism list. Congressional attempts to do that during the Obama and Bush administrations failed; the Egyptian delegation hopes the new president and new congress will be more receptive.
Trump told him “We will fight terrorism and other things. We’re going to be friends for a long, long period of time. We have a great bond with the people of Egypt…I look forward to a very long and strong relationship.”
Later, at a photo op in the Cabinet Room, Trump said, discussions were “great” although they have issues “we don’t agree on.” He offered no specifics.