On Wednesday, I had the honor of participating in a two-hour meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi in Washington, DC.
As part of his first state visit to Washington since his election in June 2014 (president Barack Obama never invited him), Sisi addressed a group of Middle East experts at the Four Seasons Hotel, just down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. He made some introductory remarks for about 15 minutes, then took our questions for the next 90 minutes. Afterward, he graciously spent another 20 minutes or so greeting each participant and chatting with us individually.
As a novelist and a dual US-Israel citizen, I found myself deeply humbled to be included in such a gathering. Indeed, as I quipped to a colleague at the meeting, it was quite something to meet the leader of Egypt on the eve of Passover and actually enjoy the experience. But I certainly did.
The conversation itself was held under what are known as “Chatham House Rules,” so I am not permitted to quote what was said or name those who attended. This allowed the president and the rest of us maximum freedom to have an open discussion without concern that something might be misquoted or cited out of context in the press.
That said, I came away deeply encouraged. As a result of what I saw and heard during the meeting, as well as in President Sisi’s interactions with US President Donald Trump, congressional leaders and American business leaders, I came away with three distinct impressions.
First, President Sisi is a man determined to rebrand Egypt as a trustworthy and stable American and Western ally after years of political chaos and instability.
Remember, as I noted in a March 7 column in The Jerusalem Post encouraging the Trump administration to move quickly to revitalize ties to Egypt, Sisi came to power amid the most catastrophic meltdown of Egypt’s social, economic and political order in living memory.
With the Arab Spring and the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi tried to impose Sharia law and a brutally violent Islamist regime on a nation that had just overthrown an autocrat. Egypt was on fire. People were dying in the streets. Police stations were burning. Churches were being blown up.
Bizarrely, the Obama administration fully backed the extremist Morsi government. But private investors fled, and the Saudis and Gulf states, deeply opposed to the Brotherhood, stopped providing support to Egypt.
During 2011, as the Arab Spring began, Egypt’s GDP contracted by more than four percent. During the tumult and uncertainty of the Morsi tenure, growth was almost non-existent, hovering between zero and 2%.
Yet from the moment then-field marshal Sisi and the Egyptian military removed the Brotherhood from power and put Morsi and his extremist colleagues in prison, they have focused all their efforts on restoring order on the streets, reestablishing national stability and beginning the arduous task of rebuilding investor confidence.
The Obama administration turned a cold shoulder the new government in Cairo, and even suspended US aid for a time. But tens of millions of Egyptians breathed a huge sigh of relief and deeply appreciated the downfall of the Brotherhood. They certainly want to fully exercise their God-given freedoms, but they also want stability – and jobs. And there are actually signs of progress.
Egypt’s economy grew 4.3% last year, and it’s projected to grow by 5.4% by 2019. Exports are up 25%, while the country’s trade deficit has fallen by 44%.
Far more needs to be done, of course, to reduce taxes, regulations, government spending and debt and streamline the bloated bureaucracy. Sisi needs to create a free-market magnet for foreign direct investment to create enough good jobs for Egypt’s 93 million people. But his message to the international business community is clear: Egypt is once again stable and open for business – and the pitch is bearing fruit.
“UK energy group BG said it would invest $4 billion [in Egypt] over two years and Italian group Eni said it had plans to invest $5 billion over four to five years,” reports the Financial Times. “BP had finalised an agreement to invest $12 billion in its West Nile Delta concession. Production, due to start in 2017, is expected to meet a quarter of the country’s energy needs. Masdar, an Abu Dhabi- based company, and Saudi Arabia’s ACWA Power signed memorandums of understanding with the Egyptian government to build power stations valued at $15 billion.”
Many similar deals are in the works, and now the Chinese have announced that they are investing upwards of $45b. in massive Egyptian infrastructure projects.
President Donald Trump was right to warmly welcome Sisi to the White House and publicly vow a much stronger US-Egyptian alliance. It was important to reward the leaders in Cairo for the progress that they are making – including their openly expressed desire to be a valued American ally – even as they encourage Egypt to do more, including on improving the human rights environment.
Second, as the former commander-in-chief of the Egyptian military, Sisi is well trained and well positioned to make Egypt an effective leader in the fight against radical Islamic terrorism.
To defeat Islamic State and other violent extremist groups – and to build an effective Sunni Arab counterweight to mounting Shi’ite Iranian aggression – President Trump needs a strong Egyptian partner. In Sisi he has a leader who intuitively understands the use (and limits) of hard power and isn’t afraid to deploy such power.
Especially encouraging is how closely the Egyptians are working with Israel on intelligence and security issues. The two countries are working especially well together in fighting the jihadist groups that have proliferated throughout the Sinai Peninsula.
Trump would be wise not to cut US military aid to Egypt for the foreseeable future. Cairo needs all the help it can get as it fights ISIS and other terrorist groups.
Third, as the leader of the first Arab nation ever to sign a peace treaty with Israel, President Sisi believes Egypt offers a model that can help lead the region to peace with the Jewish state.
What has intrigued me as I have studied Sisi is how much he admires the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, even though Sadat was assassinated for visiting Jerusalem and agreeing to the 1979 Camp David Accords. Most Egyptians opposed the peace deal then. Many still do.
Perhaps this appreciation for Sadat’s bold quest for peace explains why Sisi has built such an effective line of communication with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and was willing to participate in a secret peace summit hosted by Jordan’s King Abdullah II in Aqaba in early 2016. The Egyptian leader has resisted entreaties to get directly involved in the military conflicts in Syria and Yemen. He’s not looking to project power or influence beyond Egypt’s border. But he strikes me as genuinely interested in – indeed, even excited by – the opportunity to help Israelis and Palestinians return to direct negotiations.
Is a comprehensive peace deal even possible with Gaza controlled by Hamas and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas serving the thirteenth year of his four-year term and unwilling to hold new elections any time soon? Reasons for skepticism abound. But President Trump wants to try. President Sisi and King Abdullah II seem eager to help him. Netanyahu says he, too, is ready. And Abbas hasn’t yet said no.
One thing is for sure: Abdel Fattah Sisi is no politician. He doesn’t think like one. He doesn’t talk like one. He is a general, a man of strategy and action. His strategic objective is to stabilize his country and rebrand Egypt as a friend of America, a friend of the West, a place to do business and a force for regional peace and reconciliation. He is, therefore, an Arab leader worth watching very closely.
The author is a New York Times best-selling author. He has written three novels about the threat of Islamic State, The Third Target (2015), The First Hostage (2016), and Without Warning, which just released. He can be reached at www.joelrosenberg.com.