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Rebooting U.S.-Egypt relations, human rights concerns become a private matter

April 3, 2017 at 6:45 PM EDT
President Trump did something on Monday that his predecessor never did: welcome Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to the White House. Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner reports, while John Yang talks to Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace about the Trump administration deemphasizing human rights concerns to reboot the Egypt relationship.
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JOHN YANG: President Trump gave a ringing endorsement to the president of Egypt today.

Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner begins our coverage.

MARGARET WARNER: In a sharp departure from his predecessor, President Trump today did what President Obama never would, welcome Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to the White House.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You have a great friend and ally in the United States and in me.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Trump made it clear he’s rebooting the U.S.-Egypt relationship to focus on fighting terrorism.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I just want to let everybody know, in case there was any doubt, that we are very much behind President El-Sisi. He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation. We are very much behind Egypt and the people of Egypt.

MARGARET WARNER: The Egyptian leader, facing an Islamist insurgency in Sinai, welcomed the president’s words.

ABDEL FATTAH EL-SISI, Egyptian President: Since we met last September, I have had a deep appreciation and admiration of your unique personality, especially as you’re standing very strong in the counterterrorism field. Your excellency, very strongly and very openly, you will find Egypt and myself always beside you in this.

MARGARET WARNER: Then Commanding General El-Sisi first assumed the presidency in 2013, when he ousted the elected president, Mohammed Morsi, after mass protests against Morsi’s rule.

A harsh crackdown ensued on the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood, opposition figures, journalists and others, leaving more than 1,000 dead. Tens of thousands more, including some Americans, were imprisoned, and many NGOs have been banned.

El-Sisi won his own election in 2014. But President Obama shunned him, and froze military aid to Egypt for two years. Today, Mr. Trump made no public mention of human rights, noting only that there are — quote — “a few things” — unquote — that Washington and Cairo don’t agree on.

And in a break with Mr. Trump’s track record so far, they didn’t hold a joint news conference, precluding any unwelcome questions on the subject.

Later, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer wouldn’t say whether human rights came up during the private discussions.

SEAN SPICER, White House Press Secretary: That’s best discussed privately in terms of how we address areas that need to be discussed like that in order to make progress on them. I don’t think that should be a huge surprise.

MARGARET WARNER: Egypt currently receives $1.3 billion in annual U.S. military assistance. It’s unclear if that will survive the White House call for deep cuts in foreign aid.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Margaret Warner.

JOHN YANG: So, how much of a foreign policy shift does today’s meeting represent?

For that, we turn to Michele Dunne. She has had a 17-year career at the State Department, where she focused on Middle East policy. She’s now director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Michele, thanks so much for joining us.

By deemphasizing human rights and trying to — as he — as the administration officials are saying, reboot this relationship, what is President Trump trying to accomplish? What is he trying to get out of this?

MICHELE DUNNE, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Well, I think what President Trump wants is to construct a kind of alliance of Sunni Arab leaders, because Sisi is one of several.

There was the — the Iraqi prime minister was here in Washington very recently, as was the deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia. And then right after President Sisi will be the king of Jordan.

So, I think that President Trump has the idea of sort of rallying Sunni Arab leaders to be used in various ways, whether against ISIS, against Iran, possibly in some sort of peace effort toward Israel. So I think that’s how he sees Egypt fitting in.

JOHN YANG: And is he trying to deemphasize at least the public comments and rhetoric on human rights in order to focus on this fight on ISIS?

MICHELE DUNNE: Well, yes, clearly, that’s the case.

But I want to point out, John, that’s not really new. When I think back to the beginning of President Obama’s presidency, when Mubarak was still in power in Egypt, Obama did something very similar. Obama thought that George W. Bush had been too critical of Mubarak on human rights and that he had wrecked the relationship.

So, Obama sort of reset the button with Mubarak back at that time. It’s not unusual for a new president to do this. What I think, though, that President Trump is going to figure out in time is that the situation inside Egypt, human rights abuses at a very high level, much higher than under Mubarak, political repression and a really disastrous economic situation, all of these are really going to affect what kind of an ally Egypt can be to the United States and what kind of things we can do together against these regional problems such as terrorism.

JOHN YANG: Last week, administration officials in preparation for this visit were telling us that they felt that it was better to talk about human rights questions privately and discreetly.

They said that was the way they felt they could get the best results, best chances for success. What do you think about that?

MICHELE DUNNE: Well, we will see.

I would say it’s been tried before and that the two previous administrations did try raising things privately and, eventually, out of frustration, went a little bit more public. And even in both of the last administrations, they ended up withdrawing, withholding or suspending certain kinds of aid specifically out of concerns about human rights issues, because they saw, at the end of the day, that that wasn’t separate from the stability of Egypt or Egypt’s role in the region, that it was all tied up together.

JOHN YANG: Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain have talked about putting restrictions on aid to Egypt because of human rights.

Do you think Congress will step in and maybe tie the president’s hands a bit?

MICHELE DUNNE: Well, yes, absolutely.

Congress has a lot to say, particularly when it comes to assistance, and some of the senators you mentioned and others have already sent a signal. They put out a letter shortly — a resolution, rather, shortly before Sisi’s visit. And some of them have made press statements about there’s a big crackdown on NGOs in Egypt and so forth.

And they have indicated that they will continue to seek conditions on aid and possibly even a cutting of aid. And, by the way, John, I thought one of the most interesting things that happened today during this visit was an unnamed administration officials told a news service that President Sisi, you know, has come seeking an increase in aid, and he’s going to be disappointed.

JOHN YANG: Well, talk about that. What is President El-Sisi looking for out of this relationship?

MICHELE DUNNE: Well, look, President El-Sisi, as I mentioned, he faces a difficult situation inside of Egypt. He’s much less popular than he was. People are starting to talk about even whether the military leadership is pleased with him, whether they will want him to run for president again next year when his term ends.

So, I think he’s looking to show Egyptians and especially show the Egyptian military that he can keep the relationship with the United States solid, he can keep the aid coming in.

But, as we saw from the Trump budget, they’re considering cutting a lot of this aid or converting it to loans, instead of grants. So that wouldn’t serve Sisi’s purpose at all. And the Trump administration is putting out hints that it may be going in that direction.

JOHN YANG: Michele Dunne, thanks so much for coming in and talking with us about this.

MICHELE DUNNE: Thanks, John. It was a pleasure.

JOHN YANG: Thanks.

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