As the Trump-Pence administration develops its plan to confront Iran, destroy ISIS and strengthen U.S.-Israel relations, it is critical that they also work hard to rebuild America’s ties with key Sunni Arab allies.
I’ve written a great deal about Jordan. But we also need to focus on Egypt.
President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi was routinely ignored and disrespected during the Obama years. This as a serious mistake, and should be promptly corrected.
The Secretaries of State and Defense should visit el-Sisi in Cairo immediately. The White House should also invite the Egyptian leader to visit the President in Washington soon.
El-Sisi came to power amidst the most catastrophic meltdown of Egypt’s social, economic and political order in living memory. He has made mistakes. But he’s making progress, and he needs help.
Here are six big things the Egyptian leader is doing right.
- He’s clearly signaling he wants a dramatically improved relationship with the United States. During his September visit to the opening session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, El-Sisi made a point to meet with both candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, positioning himself for improved relations regardless of who won. After the election, he immediately called President-elect Trump to congratulate him. They have continued to speak since then. “Egypt hopes Trump’s presidency will breathe a new spirit into US-Egyptian relations,” declared a statement from el-Sisi’s office soon after the elections.
- He has called for a “religious revolution” in Islam — in effect, a Muslim Reformation — to reject radicalism and create a more peaceful, stable and tolerant Islamic world. El-Sisi delivered a major speech in Cairo on January 1, 2015 challenging Muslim leaders to reform Islam and rescue it from the Radicals. “Is it possible that 1.6 billion people [Muslims] should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants – that is seven billion – so that they themselves may live? Impossible!” el-Sisi told scholars at Al-Azhar University, the Harvard of Sunni Islam. “We are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world is waiting for your next move….I am saying these words here at Al-Azhar, before this assembly of scholars and ulema (learned men). Allah Almighty be witness to your truth on Judgment Day concerning that which I’m talking about now.” This continues to stand as one of the most dramatic and impressive speeches by a Muslim leader in recent memory.
- He is working around the clock to defeat the Radical Islamist jihadist threat to Egypt and her neighbors. In the summer of 2013, after 22 million Egyptians signed a petition to remove the Brotherhood from power, el-Sisi and the Egyptian military brought down the Brotherhood regime that was strangling Egypt and was trying to impose Sharia law. They specifically removed Mohammed Morsi from power. Remember that Morsi, the Brotherhood leader who briefly rose to the presidency in Egypt, is the man who famously said during a speech, “The Koran is our constitution, the Prophet is our leader, jihad is our path and death in the name of Allah is our goal.” Many other Brotherhood leaders were arrested. El-Sisi and his colleagues were absolutely right to remove Morsi and the Brotherhood from power, despite widespread condemnations from President Obama and many world leaders. Since then, the former general has directed his military to crush the jihadists operating in the Sinai.
- He’s not only maintaining Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, he’s developing a close working relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Under Morsi, there was a real risk that Egypt was going to abrogate the 1979 peace treaty with Israel. But relations between the two countries have warmed considerably under el-Sisi. In fact, at least three separate Members of Congress told me of meetings they each had with President el-Sisi in Cairo during the Obama years in which the Egyptian leader shared candidly that he had a better working relationship with Netanyahu than with Obama. Netanyahu has publicly praised the Egyptian leader. Security ties are growing ever closer between the two countries, especially in terms of dealing with jihadists in the Sinai. In June 2015, El-Sisi appointed a new ambassador to Israel, the first time Egypt has had an envoy to the Jewish State since 2012. The ambassador arrived in Tel Aviv in January 2016. As the Washington Institute for Near East Policy noted: “Essentially, Cairo believes that relations with Israel are strategically and diplomatically beneficial for the Sisi government and the country’s regional standing. This trend toward greater rapprochement is likely to continue; there are even hints that Egypt will extend an invitation to Netanyahu to come to Cairo for a historic visit, much like that of Sadat to Jerusalem in 1977.”
- He’s actively building closer ties with the Christian community. The Egyptian leader has very noticeably been working to reach out to Christians both in Egypt and around the world, and this is to be commended. This was certainly not something Morsi had done. Nor had Mubarak done much of it either. In 2014, el-Sisi visited Pope Francis in Rome. In 2015, for the first time that anyone can remember, Egypt’s president publicly celebrated Christmas with Coptic Christian leaders, and then did so again in 2016. Also in 2016, he vowed to restore dozens of Coptic churches damaged or destroyed by terrorists in recent years. In recent months, the Egyptian parliament approved legal measures to make it easier for churches to be built and renovated in Egypt. Overall, what I’m hearing from Christian leaders in Egypt is that they feel the president and the government is sincerely working to protect and assist Christians. That said, much more progress must be made. We need to keep praying for Christians in Egypt. It is still a very challenging environment, especially with Radical Islamist terrorists occasionally attacking Christians and even blowing up churches (such as the bombing of a key Christian church in Cairo in December 2016 that killed 29 and wounded dozens more). It’s now time for delegations of Evangelical Christian leaders to reach out to el-Sisi, get to know him and understand his vision for Egypt’s future.
- He’s making history by building close and warm ties with the Jewish community. Barely noticed is that fact that the Egyptian leader has been engaged in a truly extraordinary effort to build warm and close ties to the American Jewish community, and for this he deserves enormous credit. In early 2016, el-Sisi welcomed a delegation of 36 American Jewish leaders to Cairo. Indeed, he personally met with representatives from the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations for more than two hours, discussing his view of the region and answering their questions. In September 2016, the Egyptian leader met privately with Jewish leaders in New York while attending the opening session of the U.N. General Assembly. In December 2016, el-Sisi met with yet another Jewish delegation to Cairo, this time from the American Jewish Congress. Then, just last week, el-Sisi met with another delegation of Jewish leaders in Cairo. During the hour and a half long meeting, the president discussed his efforts to fight terrorism, improve Egypt’s economy, and advance peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. El-Sisi said the peace process was a top priority for him. Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, has been the key interlocutor between Jewish leaders and el-Sisi. He told the Jerusalem Post said “they spoke extensively with Sisi about his country’s relationship with Israel and of hope for a resolution to some outstanding issues, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which could ‘pave the way for even greater exchanges.'”
Yes, there are human rights violations in Egypt, serious economic challenges and numerous other issues that el-Sisi needs to address.
One analyst of the Egyptian political scene notes that “the Egyptian government’s theme is ‘safe before perfect,’ meaning it will try to improve on human rights but the top priority is ensuring day-to-day safety on the streets and freedom from terrorism.”
The U.S. government — along with the Christian and Jewish communities — should continue to press Egypt’s leaders to do the right thing, sooner rather than later.
At the same time, we should also be thanking el-Sisi for what he has done right, and encouraging him to move further in the right direction.
The West needs a safe and stable Egypt as a friend and an ally — now more than ever.
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