WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump at the White House gave a push on Tuesday to the campaign by his Egyptian counterpart, Abdelfatah al Sisi, to remain in power until 2034, praising the “great job” he is doing and sidestepping, at least in public, the concerns of Congress over the arrests of US citizens in Egypt.
Al Sisi’s White House visit comes at a time when the Egyptian Parliament is studying a series of constitutional amendments being pushed by his party that would allow the country’s presidential term to be expanded from four to six years, give more prominence to the armed forces and hand the president the power to appoint judges.
Although Trump did not explicitly back those amendments, he did praise Al Sisi’s leadership of Egypt without speaking directly about human rights and stating that the two nations “have never had a better relationship ... than we do right now.”
“I think he is doing a great job,” Trump said when queried by a reporter, adding that he did not know much about the referendum initiative to amend Egypt’s constitution.
If the Egyptian Parliament approves the amendments, it is expected that a referendum will be held to validate them, perhaps next month, and thus the photos taken of Al Sisi at the White House and Trump’s words of praise are sure to give a boost to that campaign.
The Egyptian opposition has complained that the amendments are only a means toward establishing a “dictatorship,” and several US lawmakers have also expressed their unease over the attempt to prolong the mandate of Al Sisi, who has been in power since 2014.
In a letter sent to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, more than a dozen US senators said that while there is strong support for the US-Egyptian security relationship, they urged him to express to Egypt their concerns about democratic governance, political freedom, economic reforms and fundamental human rights in that country.
“A strong and sustainable US-Egypt strategic partnership is vital for both countries but it requires Egypt to make a tangible effort to make those reforms,” said the Republican chairman and the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee along with 15 other senators in the letter.
They also asked the Trump administration to demand the release of more than a dozen US citizens they said had been unjustly imprisoned in Egypt amid a wave of arrests that are supposedly politically motivated and that Human Rights Watch says have affected more than 60,000 people since the Middle Eastern country’s 2013 coup.
Finally, the senators warned about reports that Egypt has decided to buy from Russia 20 Sukhoi Su-35 warplanes.
A top US official on Monday had assured reporters that Trump intended to speak with Al Sisi about human rights and the development of civil society in Egypt, and that one of the White House’s priorities is to secure the releases of Americans detained unfairly all over the world.
But the official, when asked specifically about the constitutional amendments, said that the White House has to “balance” its support for democratic institutions with “US national security interests.”
The US grants Egypt some $1.3 billion in bilateral aid each year and this fact may explain Trump’s possible silence on such issues when he meets with Al Sisi.
Al Sisi, for his part, thanked Trump for his support “on all fronts.”
This was the second White House meeting and the sixth in the past two years between the two leaders, who highlighted their good relationship when the Egyptian president became the first international leader to congratulate Trump on his 2016 election victory.