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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 April 2019

Egypt’s Sisi heads for second White House visit under shadows

Leaders are likely to express mutual admiration for each other again, but Cairo’s human rights record could rain on parade

Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El Sisi and US President Donald Trump shake hands at a meeting in New York on September 24, 2018. AFP
Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El Sisi and US President Donald Trump shake hands at a meeting in New York on September 24, 2018. AFP

In his second visit to the White House since 2017, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi can possibly count on more public expressions of praise from his American host, something that could only benefit him at this point.

Tuesday's meeting between Mr El Sisi and US President Donald Trump would be their sixth since their first encounter on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meetings in September 2016, when Mr Trump was the Republican presidential nominee.

The two have since repeatedly expressed mutual admiration.

Last year, Mr Trump praised Mr El Sisi for doing "a fantastic job" and said the US was "very much behind" him.

Egypt's pro-government media speaks of Mr Trump as a strong leader who treats the nation with respect and appreciates Mr El Sisi's leadership.

This sharply contrasts with Mr El Sisi's cool relations with Mr Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, who never invited the Egyptian leader to the White House and whose administration repeatedly admonished Cairo over human rights abuses.

The Egyptian media responded by accusing the Obama administration of supporting the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and working to destabilise Egypt.

As defence minister, Mr El Sisi led the military's removal in 2013 of the Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi amid mass protests against his rule.

Mr El Sisi may find a different Washington this time. Democrats have replaced the Republicans as the majority in the House of Representatives.

And Mr Trump is politically stronger after special counsel Robert Mueller found no evidence that Trump's campaign "conspired or co-ordinated" with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election.

"It is in this context that President Sisi's visit to Washington presents a window to start a new effort to build bridges of dialogue with the Democratic Party," political analyst Mohammed Kamal wrote in the Cairo daily Al-Masry Al-Youm.

"He should not exclusively focus on developing relations with the Republicans and the White House."

It won't be easy. Senator Patrick Leahy, the ranking democrat on the powerful appropriations committee, is trying to persuade the US government not to go ahead with a $1 billion deal to sell Egypt 10 Apache helicopter gunships.

Mr Leahy says the deal should be delayed until Cairo reimburses medical expenses incurred by an American woman who was severely injured in an attack by the Egyptian military in 2015, which killed 12, including her Mexican boyfriend.

Egypt says it mistook the group for militants when its Apache helicopters fired on them in the desert west of Cairo. It has offered the woman, April Corley, $150,000 in compensation.

Ms Corley is demanding about $15m and wants a law enacted that would allow US citizens to sue the Egyptian government if they are injured in violent crimes there.

Mohammed Al Menshawi, an Egyptian political analyst in Washington, had some advice for Mr El Sisi on how to head off criticism over the issue while in the US.

"A meeting between the Egyptian President and Miss April will be a step outside the box of traditional thinking and will abort any effort to embarrass him while in Washington," Al Menshawi wrote in Cairo's independent Al Shorouk daily.

Ms Corley's case would not be the only probable source of criticism while Mr El Sisi is in Washington until Wednesday.

Democrats in Congress also are likely during Mr El Sisi's visit to air their scepticism over constitutional amendments that rights groups say are a slide back to authoritarian rule.

The government says they are needed to reform the country's political system.

Their adoption by Parliament and in a referendum expected this month or early May are not in doubt.

The changes allow Mr El Sisi to stay in office until 2034, grant him more control over the judiciary and give the military a supreme political role as protector of the state.

Parliament has yet to adopt the changes in a plenary, but government supporters have already flooded Cairo with banners and giant billboards calling on voters to say "yes."

"Do the right thing," many of them say.

Two Egyptian film stars who briefed a Congressman in Washington on Egypt's rights record and the "danger" of the constitutional amendments have been thrown out of the actors’ guild and accused of treason.

Updated: April 9, 2019 01:41 AM

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