Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi did not need a special visa to enter the United States. Egypt is not included in the list of six predominantly Muslim nations whose citizens are not allowed to make the pilgrimage to the Mecca of the Western world, and Sissi is one of U.S. President Donald Trump’s favorites.
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The official visit is being extensively covered by the media, and it is Sissi’s finest hour. The Egyptian president's status in the Arab world and internationally has dimmed over the past two years, as his country's ability to lead diplomatic maneuvers has been deeply damaged since the Arab Spring revolution in 2011. A strong friendship with Trump is not necessarily a guarantee of great popularity in Egypt, but it certainly could help in shortening the bread lines at government bakeries.
The split between Egypt and the United States began back in the days of Hosni Mubarak, who treated both George W. Bush and Barack Obama with suspicion, as well as with a large measure of disgust. Mubarak viewed both as ignoramuses who did not understand the Middle East and lacking in the skills and wisdom to manage the conflicts that shattered the region.
In his last five years in office, Mubarak avoided visiting the United States, despite wooing from Washington. Obama did not even invite Sissi, and it took almost a year before the Americans recognized the legitimacy of his rule, the product of the forceful ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood. Sissi's presidential election win made it easier for the Americans to stomach him, but the bad blood remained.
For Israel and Egypt, Obama was a villain who promoted Iran's interests, a friend of the Muslim Brotherhood, a bluffer who never stood up to his words about the war on Islamic State, overthrowing Syrian President Bashar Assad or advancing peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
And then came Trump. The warm back-slapping the new president gave to Sissi, “a fantastic guy” as he called him after they met in New York before the elections, marked a new beginning in the relationship between the two countries.
While Hillary Clinton preferred to talk to Sissi about human rights, Sissi liked Trump's "straight talk" and was the first world leader to congratulate Trump on his election. Egyptian liberals gritted their teeth and human rights activists, already suffering under a steamroller of detentions, arrests, investigations and persecutions, understood immediately that nothing good will come from the wonderful new friendship with Trump’s America. But like in its neighbor Israel, liberals’ interests are not necessarily the same as their country's leader.
Sissi has three main goals: To increase the annual economic aid, increasing military aid to fight terrorism, and defining the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization in order to finish the war against his religious political rivals. Trump has his own requests. He wants greater Egyptian involvement in the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, and to make sure Egypt does not shift eastward, in the direction of Russia and Iran.
Still, this isn't just a friendly official visit where the two will chitchat over tea and biscuits. Sissi is arriving in Washington after the Arab League summit in which Trump’s representative, Jason Greenblatt, “observed,” and after Trump spoke with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, King Abdullah II of Jordan and Saudi King Salman.
Sissi is now visiting not just as a president but also as a senior adviser from whom Trump wants to hear not just advice and assessments, but also possible initiatives to advance the “historic deal” between Israel and the Palestinians. Are Arab nations, and in particular Saudi Arabia and Egypt, willing to outline a new peace framework that includes some of the settlements and parts of East Jerusalem in Israel? Will Egypt agree to warm up its relationship with Israel? What will be Egypt’s part in solving the problem of Gaza?
These are just some of the burning issues Trump will want to hear Sissi’s opinion about, and Sissi will not be surprised by these questions. Senior American officials have already sent such a list of topics to Cairo and asked Sissi to come prepared not just to listen but with practical suggestions. For example, will he be willing to hold a joint summit with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? Is it possible to hold a summit with Netanyahu, Abbas, King Abdullah and himself? If Trump implements his golden rule, in which anyone who receives American money is required to pay for it in diplomatic coin, then Sissi will have an interesting and satisfying visit, but most of the work for Egypt will start after the visit, when Sissi would be required to pressure on Abbas and tighten the Arab embrace with Israel.
Sissi’s visit, which completes Trump’s recent round of consultations, could produce a better American plan that will not make do with just goodwill and confidence-building gestures toward the Palestinians or curbing construction in the settlements. After Trump abandoned Syria, left the war in Yemen in the hands of the Saudis and has gone missing from the volatile Libyan arena, the Israel-Palestinian conflict could end up be Trump’s main target.