Trump’s Failure to Raise Human Rights with Sisi Harms U.S. Interests
As expected, President Trump offered no public criticism of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s human rights record during their meeting at the White House today. White House spokesperson Sean Spicer declined to answer a question on whether the leaders had talked about human rights, saying that he could not comment on private discussions.
President Sisi came to Washington looking for strong public affirmation from President Trump, and he received it. Trump repeated his fulsome endorsement of Sisi (“doing a fantastic job”) and offered his full support, while offering few specifics about what this support might entail. Even as Trump was offering his support, “a U.S. government official” was letting it be known that Egypt would be receiving no extra foreign aid from the United States and could even receive less, as a result of overall budget cuts.
While Sisi may well be disappointed by the lack of aid guarantees, the uncritical support will make up for it in political terms. He can claim to his own constituency, in Egypt and the broader Arab region, that his leadership has been blessed in Washington.
Trump promised Sisi that the United States and Egypt would “fight Islamic militants" together, yet his unwillingness to raise human rights concerns weakens counterterrorism. Sisi’s repressive policies—stifling the political opposition, jailing journalists and muzzling the free press, and mounting an unprecedented crackdown on independent civil society organizations, including human rights groups—are closing off the only available paths to essential political and economic reform. By failing to stress the security costs of this crackdown, President Trump is helping to pave the way for a future of instability and polarization, which has resulted in violent conflict in the recent past, and could do so again.
Egypt faces rising terrorist threats from a variety of sources. By failing to give President Sisi frank advice on steps his government should take to reduce threats from ISIS, which is expanding its presence in Sinai, or from disaffected Islamist militants turning to violence, or from the continuation of anti-Christian violence and sectarian incitement, President Trump has missed an opportunity, harmed Egypt’s prospects for achieving sustainable stability, and ultimately harmed U.S. interests.
The United States and Egypt need a new relationship based on mutual interests and shared responsibilities. There is no indication that Trump and Sisi made any progress towards that objective, and there is a great danger that Sisi will take his warm reception at the White House as a signal to continue on his disastrous path.