President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s scheduled three-day visit to the US capital next week will have Middle East peace as its underlining theme.
According to a White House statement issued during the last week of March, US President Donald Trump will meet Al-Sisi in the Oval Office on 9 April for talks that will cover “developments and shared priorities in the region, including enhancing regional economic integration and addressing ongoing conflicts, and Egypt’s longstanding role as a lynchpin of regional stability”.
According to an Egyptian diplomatic source, this “will of course include the issue of the Trump peace plan that we expect to finally be announced in the coming weeks”.
Al-Sisi’s meeting with Trump will coincide with Israeli elections. Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu is running against Benny Gatz, a popular former general, though in the assessment of informed Washington and Cairo sources Netanyahu remains the frontrunner, and Trump is expected to unveil the final draft of his administration’s peace plan once the elections are over and a new Israeli government formed.
The same sources agree that during their Oval Office meeting Trump will brief Al-Sisi on the content of the final version of the peace document and that Al-Sisi will confirm his commitment to promoting Middle East peace.
In his statement before the Arab Summit in Tunis on Sunday Al-Sisi reminded participants of the Arab peace initiative first offered in 2002 and said “the Arabs’ hand is still reaching out with and for peace.”
Some Arab leaders who took part in the summit, including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, have shunned US mediation, insisting Trump was too biased towards Israel to act as a peace broker, though Cairo, according to an Egyptian diplomatic source, is still willing to invite Abbas for talks following Al-Sisi’s return from Washington, to “share and consult on the updates”.
“We will be talking to all parties though we realise it is a very difficult situation,” said the Egyptian diplomatic source. He added that whatever the “possible shortcomings of the Trump deal it is better to try to get something than have nothing.
“We need to start at some point and then try to improve the terms of the deal as we go along. That’s how peace deals are done.”
President Al-Sisi is also expected to attend a ceremony at the US Congress to honour late president Anwar Al-Sadat on the 40th anniversary of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty which Sadat signed with the then Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin at the White House on 26 March 1979.
Sadat family members, and probably his widow Jihan, will be present for the ceremony and the posthumous award of a Congressional Gold Medal.
A congressional delegation visited Cairo in February to invite Al-Sisi to take part in the ceremony though, according to the Egyptian diplomatic source, President Al-Sisi only agreed to attend the event after “it was confirmed that his schedule and that of President Trump would allow for a bilateral meeting to discuss Middle East peace, overall regional developments and bilateral relations.”
Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri, in Washington to discuss the details of Al-Sisi’s visit, received confirmation that the meeting would go ahead.
During his talks in Washington Shoukri also received assurances that Al-Sisi’s presence in Congress will not be overshadowed by any comments made by participating Congressmen on the domestic situation in Egypt.
During his talks in Washington President Al-Sisi will affirm that he is committed to “a process of reform that will be decided by the Egyptian people, including any amendments to the constitution done through parliament”, said the diplomatic source.
While Washington sources do not expect Al-Sisi to face any heckling from Congressmen they do not preclude the issuing of “some statements” reflecting concern over developments in Egypt, though these could well be counter-balanced by praise from other quarters for Al-Sisi’s regional policies, especially in relation to promoting Arab-Israeli peace and encouraging closer cooperation with Israel. There are no plans, as yet, for a joint press conference of the two presidents.
Al-Sisi last met Trump in September on the fringe of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York. In April 2017 Trump had received Al-Sisi at the White House in a meeting that officials on both sides described as “cordial”.
Over the last two years Egyptian officials have voiced concerns that relations with the US had not been as positive as Cairo had hoped.
They particularly complain about US hesitation over closer economic engagement and expanded military cooperation, and their disappointment was made clear to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his most recent visit to Egypt.
The Sisi-Trump meeting is expected to examine a broad range of regional issues, including the Trump initiative to launch a regional umbrella for American-Arab cooperation bringing together the US, Egypt, Jordan and the six GCC member states.
The Middle East Security Alliance (MESA) is intended to cover military, political and economic cooperation. Officials from the nine countries are still discussing its final framework. Their last meeting took place in Tampa, Florida, in March, and included the chiefs of staff of the nine states.
Developments in Syria will be high on the agenda of the meeting. Egypt has been actively pushing for the re-integration of the Syrian regime in the Arab League.
According to the Egyptian diplomatic source, during meetings in Cairo in March, with King Abdullah of Jordan and Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel-Mahdi, Al-Sisi discussed the possibilities of re-admitting Syria to the Arab League. Both leaders were in favour, as is Tunisia, the current chair of the Arab Summit.
Al-Sisi is expected to brief the US administration of the outcome of these talks while in Washington in the hope of reducing US opposition to the rehabilitation of Bashar Al-Asssad.
Libya is also likely to feature on the agenda of the Sisi-Trump talks. According to the same Egyptian diplomatic source during his talks in Cairo in March with Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed, a leading mediator in the Libya peace talks, Al-Sisi stressed the importance of ensuring a political balance in Libya that does not exaggerate the Islamists’ influence and secures an adequate power share for the military.
“For Egypt, Libya is a crucial front in the war against terrorism, as is Syria,” said the source.
It is inevitable that these issues will be on the agenda of the strategic Egyptian-American dialogue which, the diplomat says, “should regain momentum this year after more than a decade of suspension”.
Away from the Oval Office and Congress, Al-Sisi is expected to attend a gala dinner in Washington hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce where he will make a brief statement to encourage US investments in Egypt.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 April, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Reaching out for peace