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Trump looks to reboot bilateral ties with Egypt

April 2, 2017 at 3:47 PM EDT
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will visit the White House on Monday after the Trump administration said the president is looking to reboot the bilateral relationship between Egypt and the U.S. But the visit raises questions about U.S. foreign aid to Egypt along with al-Sisi's human rights record. Peter Baker, White House correspondent for The New York Times, joins Hari Sreenivasan for a preview.
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HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will visit the White House tomorrow. The administration has said President Trump is looking to reboot the bilateral relationship and build on the connection the two presidents established when they first met in New York last year. The visit raises questions about U.S. foreign aid to Egypt and al-Sisi’s human rights record since he overthrew Egypt’s first democratically-elected president in 2013.

“New York Times” White House correspondent Peter Baker joins me now from Washington for a preview.

Peter, you had a chance to sit down with officials in the White House last week. But, first of all, regardless of what happens at the meeting, the very act of the U.S. president meeting him at the White House, that’s kind of a win for Egypt right there?

PETER BAKER, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, NEW YORK TIMES: Well, the picture is what President Sisi wants more than anything, that along with the money, of course. But the picture is really important, a picture of him with the president of the United States, in the Oval Office, in the White House, something that no Egyptian president has had since 2009. President Obama, you know, he went back and forth on how hard to push on human rights but he kept a distance from President Sisi, never invited him to the White House. And this is something as you say as a victory for President Sisi to come and be with the president of the United States.

SREENIVASAN: All right. Let’s talk about the people he overthrew to take the spot, the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt considers them basically a terrorist organization, but they want the world to see that as well. What’s the likelihood the U.S. moves in that direction?

BAKER:
Well, that’s exactly right and when President Sisi met or his people met with people from President Obama’s administration, they brought up every single time, you need to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, they said. And the Obama administration consistently refused.

The Trump administration is debating this. They’re not sure about this. There are some people within the administration who agree, who think that the Muslim Brotherhood is essentially equivalent to radical Islamic groups like the Islamic State, like al-Qaeda, like Shabaab.

But there are many others inside the Trump administration and many outside the Trump administration who say, no, that — you shouldn’t conflate the two. They’re not like that. They are more moderate. They have officially renounced violence and they are a much more amorphous organization anyway that would cause all sorts of unintended consequences if you call them a terrorist organization because suddenly you wouldn’t be allowed it deal with people who are in governments in places line Tunisia and other places.

SREENIVASAN: All right. And Egypt has cracked down hard to put it mildly on the Muslim Brotherhood. And your piece recently talked about their human-rights record. And a lot of people are pushing the United States to take a stand on it. But what’s the Trump administration going to do.

BAKER: According to Human Rights Watch, tens of thousands of people have been put in prison by President Sisi’s administration for largely political reason, the Muslim Brotherhood. But not just Muslim Brotherhood, also, you know, some non — some people who are not related to them, including a few Americans.

What the Trump White House is saying is, look, human rights are important to us. We are going to raise it but we’re going to do it in private. We’re not going to talk about this publicly. We don’t think that’s the constructive way to approach this.

But then you have the critics outside who are saying, if you don’t raise it publicly, it sends a signal to not just Egypt but the whole region that it’s not important to you.

SREENIVASAN: Now, speaking of the region, the president or the king of Jordan is supposed to visit on Wednesday. And the Trump administration has said their priority is to fight ISIS. And in that context, what about the aid the United States gives to Egypt? Does that increase or decrease especially with what the budget is?

BAKER: What, of course, we’ve seen President Trump has sent Congress a budget proposal that cuts foreign aid very drastically, very dramatically. And they have said other than Israel basically, everybody’s aid package is on the table. Well, second to Israel is Egypt. $1.3 billion a year in military aid.

But the Trump administration is saying, look, we’re going to give them enough money but we’re not telling you how much yet because of the whole budget process going on. So, the Egyptians are very nervous about that, that’s one of the top priorities that President Sisi has in coming to Washington is to see if he can’t preserve their rather, you know, generous aid levels that they’ve had now going back to the Camp David Accords in the 1970s.

SREENIVASAN: All right. “New York Times” White House correspondent Peter Baker joining us from Washington — thanks so much.

BAKER: Thanks. Good talking to you.

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