Trump says he stands behind Sisi and the Egyptian people

The Egyptian president, who was the first Arab head of state to visit Donald Trump's White House, said he was pleased to also be the first Egyptian leader to visit the US presidential residence for eight years.

US president Donald Trump greets Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El Sisi as he arrives at the White House in Washington, DC on April 3, 2017. Andrew Harnik / AP Photo
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NEW YORK // Donald Trump said he stood behind the Egyptian president and his people as Abdel Fattah El Sisi became the first Arab head of state to visit Mr Trump's White House.

Inside the Oval Office on Monday, the two leaders promised to stand together against terrorism and immediately expressed their friendship for each other.

Mr El Sisi said he was pleased to be the first Egyptian leader to visit the White House for eight years.

“Since we met last September I have had a deep appreciation and admiration of your unique personality especially as you are standing very strong in the counter-terrorism field to counter this evil ideology that is claiming innocent lives and bringing devastation to communities and nations,” he said.

Mr Trump also described a warm friendship since their first meeting during the US presidential campaign last year.

“I just want to say to you Mr President that you have a great friend and ally in the United States and in me,” he said. “We are very much behind president Sisi. He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation. We are very much behind Egypt and the people of Egypt.”

The visit highlights how the new US administration wants to forge warmer ties with Egypt and ends Mr El Sisi’s status as an outcast in Washington where his rise to power as a military chief and his crackdown on protesters cooled relations with former American president Barack Obama.

Instead he arrived in the US capital with hopes of securing the military and financial support he needs to revive his country’s faltering economy.

For Mr Trump, the Egyptian president is seen as a staunch ally against terrorism and a leader who has spoken of the importance of reforming religious discourse to thwart extremists.

In a sign of the importance of the relationship, Mr El Sisi was due to spend two and a half hours with the US president. After a reception in the Oval Office, they and their teams were scheduled to hold an extended session of talks in the cabinet room, before a working lunch in the state dining room and a meeting with Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state.

The meeting has led to feverish excitement in Cairo that Mr El Sisi could win an increase in the US$1.3 billion (Dh4.8bn) in military aid that Egypt receives from Washington each year.

Michael Wahid Hanna, of the New York-based Century Foundation, said the White House visit offered a very public and symbolic sign of support.

“One outcome of this is that the Egyptians are going to have to manage expectations,” he said. “Some of the runaway hopes about what the new relationship could produce are going to be disappointed.

“With respect to aid in particular, they had some unrealistic aspirations to be closer to parity with Israel in terms of foreign military funding.

In fact, added Mr Hanna, Mr Trump’s administration has said its aid budget will be targeted for cuts, raising doubts that its current assistance to Egypt can be maintained.

The visit comes at a crucial time for Mr El Sisi. Inflation has rocketed to more than 30 per cent, the Egyptian pound has halved in value against the dollar since foreign exchange restrictions were lifted and ISIL-linked extremists have intensified their campaign in the Sinai peninsula.

Under Mr Obama, relations with the US were buffeted by upheavals at home.

Mr El Sisi was the head of Egypt’s armed forces and the defence minister in July 2013 when he led the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi after mass demonstrations erupted against the country’s first democratically elected president and his divisive rule.

More than 1,000 people were killed a month later when Morsi’s supporters and the Muslim Brotherhood took to the streets in protest.

Human Rights Watch says tens of thousands of people were arrested in the aftermath and that abuses continue, including torture and disappearances.

The record has tarnished relations with many Western leaders. Mr Trump has not seen it in quite the same way.

“He took control of Egypt. And he really took control of it,” he said during an interview with the Fox Business Network in September.

In the run-up to Monday’s meeting, White House officials said they would no longer raise human rights concerns in public as they sought to rebuild the relationship between the two countries.

Supporters see it as a pragmatic, realist approach to dealing with the rise of ISIL.

And analysts say the approach is no surprise given Mr Trump’s campaign promises and commitment to seeking out allies against extremist terrorism whatever their flaws at home.

Mr El Sisi is also due to meet other high ranking US officials, as well as the heads of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to review progress on economic reforms.