A momentous Tuesday in regional developments
Dina Ezzat, , Wednesday 10 Apr 2019
Al-Sisi’s meeting with Trump in the Oval Office was held against a backdrop of regional uncertainty

An eventful Tuesday saw Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu holding his breath awaiting the election results that will decide his future.

In Algeria demonstrations were about to enter a sixth week as protesters refused the assumption of power by head of the National Assembly in the wake of last week’s resignation of Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika.

In Sudan, Tuesday saw the continuation of massive protests despite the attempt of security forces to quell them. The demonstrators, who have been taking to the streets since 19 December, appear as determined as ever to force out Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir.

In Libya there was no sign that conflicting parties were ready to lay down their arms in response to appeals from the UN Security Council, the UN secretary-general, his envoy to Libya or international and regional capitals.

On Tuesday the frustrated UN Envoy Ghassan Salamé said that he was postponing indefinitely the national dialogue that was supposed to pave the way to legislative and presidential elections by the end of the year.

On the same day Egypt witnessed a suicide attack in Sinai when a 15-year-old boy blew himself up, killing seven and injuring 26.

A plethora of extremely worrying items competing on the agenda of talks President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi was scheduled to hold with US President Donald Trump in a meeting that started late Tuesday afternoon Middle East Time in the Oval Office: hardly a surprise, then, that the talks should focus more on regional issues than bilateral relations, as an American source told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Bilateral relations are “quite satisfactory”, said the source, though Al-Sisi and Trump were due to review the military and economic cooperation requests that Egypt made during US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Cairo last year.

In brief statements to the press ahead of the meeting in the White House, President Al-Sisi expressed appreciation for the “support Trump has been giving to Egypt”. Bilateral relations, he added, were better than they have been for years.

Trump also praised the strength of bilateral ties, saying Egypt and the US would continue to cooperate in the face of terrorism.

Under the rubric of the war on terrorism, Al-Sisi and Trump were set to review the latest developments in Syria and Iraq where, according to a recent Trump tweet, the Islamic State (IS) had been eliminated.

“We think that the presence of IS and other terrorist groups has indeed been significantly reduced in Syria and Iraq but we have enough evidence to think that the battle against IS and other terrorists is not over — and certainly not for us in Sinai,” said an Egyptian official. He added that Al-Sisi was expected to share his assessment on the issue in his Washington talks.

According to the same official source, Egypt’s president also voiced concern over the “infiltration into Libya and Sudan by IS militants and other radical groups.

“We are particularly worried about these two neighbouring countries. We have long common borders and want to ensure the militants do not end up trying to find their way to Egypt.

“We cannot afford a leadership emerging in Libya or Sudan that tolerates, or even worse condones, militant Islamic activity. This is why we support the campaign against militant groups in western and southern Libya being conducted by [Khalifa] Haftar, and why we are keeping a close eye on any possible transition of power in Sudan,” says the source.

Haftar began his military advance into western Libya earlier this week. The UN and the EU have both expressed concern over the consequences of the move, not least its impact on the already slim chances of securing a political settlement in conflict-ridden Libya.

The US has called on Haftar to end his campaign in the west of the country which is largely under the control of the internationally acknowledged coalition government.

In an official statement Egypt, too, has called for an end to hostilities in Libya, though it also stressed the need to eliminate terrorist groups in the country.

According to the American source, Cairo and Washington do not see eye-to-eye on the management of the situation in Libya.

While Egypt has continued to throw its weight behind Haftar the US worries about his ability to exercise real control on the ground and is concerned about his close association with Russia.

During a UN Security Council discussion on Libya this week, Russia blocked a motion calling on Haftar to pull his troops back to east Libya.

Russia was also expected to feature in the Sisi-Trump talks in terms of the military, and possible nuclear, cooperation between Cairo and Moscow.

The American source did not expect any of the disagreements the two countries have to outweigh the levels of cooperation and agreement between Trump and Al-Sisi, especially on the need to suppress political Islam and promote a Palestinian-Israeli final settlement.

Before meeting with Trump in Washington on Tuesday Al-Sisi had already spoken with Trump’s aide on the Palestinian-Israeli file, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and with Pompeo.

Following the meeting, Presidential Spokesman Bassam Radi reported that Al-Sisi had said “Egypt will continue to support all serious efforts to find a fair and comprehensive settlement for the Palestinian cause on the basis of international legitimacy and the two-state solution.”

Egyptian and American sources agreed Al-Sisi and Trump will have reviewed developments in Egypt, including proposed changes to the NGOs law, the upcoming referendum on constitutional amendments, and continuing economic reforms, and no one predicted major disagreements.

Trump, said an American source, might share a few remarks on the situation of civil society and human rights in Egypt, if only to appease to Congress and pressure groups in Washington.

Al-Sisi arrived in Washington from Guinea, where he arrived on Sunday on the first leg of an African tour that will resume following his visit to the US.

His remaining two stops are Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire. Egypt is the current chair of the African Union (AU), and according to an Egyptian diplomat, Al-Sisi is consulting with African leaders on “ways to make the AU more attuned to serving the interests of the peoples of the continent and promoting development and stability”.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 April, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline:A momentous Tuesday