It is with high expectations and a positive outlook that President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi goes to the Oval Office for his Monday afternoon meeting with US President Donald Trump.
This is the second meeting between the two men in less than six months but the first one after Trump's inauguaration. An earlier meeting took place in New York on the sideline of Sisi’s participation in the UNGA in September 2016, while Trump was still running for president.
As early as autumn last year, the talk was about an exceptional chemistry between the two men, who saw eye to eye on the need to combat militant Islamism and to find a holistic approach to resolving Middle East issues, including the Israeli-Palestine conflict and the instability in Syria and Libya.
It is a meeting with a long agenda of talks on topics of interest of both sides.
An exercise of ‘give and take’ was how veteran Egyptia journalist Makram Mohamed Ahmed described the anticipated meeting in a recent column.
Ahmed was not alone there. Emadeddine Adib, another well-known mainstream Egyptian journalist, in one of his daily columns this week, also anticipated a meeting involving demands from each side, both at the bilateral and regional levels.
An Egyptian diplomat speaking to Ahram Online on condition of anonymity said that the demands of the Egyptian side “are really about showing the true strategic commitment of the US to its partnership with Egypt; we want Washington to prove its words on its plans to provide Egypt with economic and security support.”
Security and economy were two points that a senior US administration official stressed in a White House Briefing a few days ago ahead of El-Sisi’s arrival in Washington.
“President Trump aims to assert deep US commitment to Egypt’s security, stability and prosperity,” the senior official said, according to the text posted on the White House website.
According to the same text, “The US wants to support Sisi’s efforts” for the reform and modernization of Islamic discourse, his bold economic reforms, his campaign to defeat the threat in Sinai and his attempt to restablish Egypt’s regional leadership role.
“Our relationship has historically been driven by security and that will remain a key component of the engagement with Egypt,” the senior official said in the same briefing.
This statement might, however, be broken down in different ways by the Egyptian and US sides.
According to Egyptian officials involved in the preparation for El-Sisi's visit, Cairo wants to see advanced security cooperation that goes beyond anything that the two countries have had since the construction of a close alliance in the late 1970s in the wake of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.
Egypt, the same officials said, wants to advance the terms of the annual US military assistance to make it include a higher degree of accessibility and more flexibility to buy equipment from the US, the main provider of arms for Cairo.
In the context of the annual military assistance, this is known as ‘free cash flow’.
Preliminary talks on the matter between Cairo and Washington, including those conducted by Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri during the preparatory work he did for the presidential visit, failed to secure a tentative US agreement on the expected Egyptian demand.
“I cannot say that our request has been overlooked, no. Actually, I could say that it is being considered,” the same official said.
In his White House briefing, the senior White House official declined to share any concrete position on the matter on the part of the Trump administration. However, he said that the issue would be discussed.
An informed Western diplomat who spoke to Ahram Online in Cairo two days before the visit suggested that the matter “will depend” on how much El-Sisi and Trump agree on “other matters related to security” across the Middle East.
The diplomat said the US is expecting Cairo to be unequivocally committed to cooperatng on “acting” against militant Islamist groups, especially the IS group, “not just in Sinai” but across the region.
She said that there is not yet a final plan to which the US is expecting Egypt to agree, but there is a general outline that Trump will discuss with Sisi.
Depending on the position El-Sisi takes, Egypt's demand for free cash flow will be approved, the diplomat said.
Meanwhile, the same diplomat said that Trump “might not be ready” to agree to the request that the US place the Muslim Brotherhood on its "terror list".
“I know that our Egyptian friends are very keen on this but this is a very complex issue,” she said.
According to identical Egyptian and American sources, the US has been advised against the move by several Arab and European countries who say it would deprive the political Islam movement of any potentially moderate wing, forcing the Muslim Brotherhood across the Arab world to go underground and probably turn militant.
Turkey was also among the warning voices,expressing concern to the White House..
This said, Egyptian officials involved in preparations for El-Sisi's visit said that the matter would still be discussed during the presidents’ meeting on Monday.
And according to the White House briefing on the visit, the debate on the matter in the administration is still underway.
“That is going to be a discussion that will unfold between us and Egypt… [and] it is safe to say that the discussion will continue within the administration.”
However, officials in Cairo seemed encouraged by the very fact that Washington was not immediately ruling out the demand. They said that El-Sisi would provide his host with enough evidence on the Muslim Brotherhood's involvement in "acts of instability – in Egypt and other countries in the region" to secure support for the group being placed on the terror list. They added that nobody was expecting an immediate decision from Trump on the matter and that it was good enough that "unlike his predecessor" Trump was willing to listen and discuss.
Relations between the El-Sisi regime and the Barack Obama administration were not particularly comfortable, given the hesitation of the previous US administration in acknowledging the political change that occurred in Egypt in June 2013.
A meeting between El-Sisi and Obama in New York a year later, following the election of El-Sisi to the top executive job in June 2014, secured stable bilateral relations, including strong support from the Obama administration for Egypt in getting an IMF loan last year. However, it failed to move beyond that.
El-Sisi never visited the White House during the Obama administration.
Today, he is hoping to turn a new page in bilateral relations with a new administration.
In his White House briefing ahead of El-Sisi’s visit, the senior administration official said that the interaction between the two men since their meeting last September in New York “already improved the tone of the relationship”.
He added that the White House hoped that the visit would “continue the positive momentum”.
According to concerned officials in Cairo, there is much that the US could do to actually give a positive push to the bilateral relations between Cairo and Washington, especially on the economic front.
Egypt, they said, is hoping to reach a clearer understanding with Washington on the expansion of the economic assistance it gets on an annual basis, on the release of funds that have not been used by Egypt from the annual assistance package and on the possible negotiation of a free-trade agreement.
The US, according to the White House briefing, will be looking seriously at the Egyptian demands with an eye on helping Egypt overcome the difficulties it is facing due to its economic reforms.
The US official said that Trump “wants to increase focus on economic and commercial cooperation in our bilateral relationship.”
Egypt, he stated, “is one of the traditional pillars of stability in the Middle East and has been a reliable US partner for years.”
Egyptian officials in Cairo said that they were confident about "a breakthrough" in economic relations with the US.
Then again, according to the Western diplomat in Cairo, the length and breadth of this advancement of economic cooperation depends on how much effort Egypt is willing to invest in helping regulate regional issues, especially the Israel-Palestine file – “and of course, also Libya”.
On Monday, Trump and El-Sisi will be discussing potential avenues for action on the Israel-Palestine peace process, which has been stalled for almost a decade. The same issue will be subject to discussion with the Jordanian Monarch as he meets with Trump at the Oval Office on Thursday morning, and later with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.
Trump has already listened to the Israeli views on the matter during a Washington meeting in mid-February.
According to Egyptian and US views shared with Ahram Online, there will be "no conditionality" on the part of the US for improving the terms of its economic support to Egypt on matters related to human rights. However, the matter of human rights will not be completely off the table in talks between the two presidents.
“Human rights are first and foremost in our discussions ... we handle these issues in private,” said the senior administration official in his White House briefing prior to the arrival of El-Sisi.
However, also prior to the Egyptian president's arrival, a bipartisan "Egypt resolution" was tabled for the consideration of Congress to reaffirm US commitment to partnership with Egypt and its participation in the Global Coalition to counter the Islamic State group, and its potential role as a facilitator for a settlement in many conflicts in the Middle East, including in Libya, Syria and Yemen.
The resolution also recognizes that “Egypt faces legitimate security threats and expresses condolences for the loss of life suffered by the Egyptian people in attacks by violent extremist organizations.”
Meanwhile, the resolution “recognizes the necessity for Egypt’s leaders to take steps toward genuine political reform that prioritizes human rights, fundamental freedoms, and rule of law.”
It specifically demanded the “the immediate release of unjustly imprisoned American citizens, including Aya Hijazi, who has been detained in Egypt since May 2014 on unsubstantiated charges” and “an immediate end to the harassment and interference in the operations of independent civil society and media organizations in Egypt, including the closure of Case 173 and the revision of Egypt’s non-governmental organization law in accordance with international best practices.”
An official accompanying the Egyptian president on the US visit said that this draft resolution is unlikely to cast a shadow over the talks he was planning with Trump.
He added that nobody was expecting zero reference to matters related to human rights anyway, “but what we expect is for our point of view to be heard and respected and that our differences of view, which are expected and legitimate, are not going to obstruct the wider scope of our cooperation.”
The draft bipartisan congressional resolution stated that "any proposed restructuring of US assistance to Egypt, which is subject to the approval of Congress, will take into account progress on meaningful political reform, human rights, and fundamental freedoms.”
However, for his part, the Egyptian official on the tour stated that Trump and El-Sisi have to work on issue that are much larger in scope and higher on the scale of priority to both leaders, such that they should not be obstructed by a negative press coverage or a skeptical Congressional take.
After all, he added, Egypt “too has good friends in Congress and they will meet with the president and listen to his views.”
El-Sisi’s visit to the US will also include meetings with leading investors, think-tankers, and officials from the World Bank and the International Monatery Fund.