As the Trump administration develops plans to confront Iran, destroy Islamic State (ISIS) and strengthen US-Israel relations, it’s critical that it also rebuild America’s ties with Egypt, the leader of Sunni Arab world.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi was often disrespected if not ignored by president Barack Obama. This serious mistake should be promptly corrected.
The American secretaries of state and defense should visit Cairo immediately to map out ways to work together. President Donald Trump should then invite the Egyptian leader to visit him in Washington soon, following up on successful recent meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jordan’s King Abdullah.
Sisi came to power amid 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.
Islamic State beheads 21 Coptic Christians from Egypt
Here are six big things the Egyptian leader is doing right:
First, he’s signaling he wants a dramatically improved relationship with the US. Sisi met privately with then-candidate Trump last September during the opening of the UN General Assembly in New York. He immediately called Trump after the election to congratulate him, and has spoken to him several times since. “Egypt hopes Trump’s presidency will breathe a new spirit into US-Egyptian relations,” Sisi made clear in a written statement. The White House should reciprocate quickly.
Second, he has courageously called for what amounts to a Muslim “Reformation.”
On January 1, 2015, Sisi addressed scholars and clerics at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the Harvard of Sunni Islam, challenging them to reform Islam and rescue it from the radicals.
“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 stands as one of the most impressive speeches by a moderate Muslim leader in recent memory. By working closely with Sisi (and Jordan’s king), Trump can demonstrate that when he rightly denounces Radical Islam he’s not suggesting that he’s going to war with the religion of Islam.
Third, he’s not just talk – he’s working hard to protect Egypt from radical Islamist jihadists. In the summer of 2013, after 22 million Egyptians signed a petition to remove the Muslim Brotherhood from power, 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 the presidency. It was Morsi, after all, who had famously declared, “The Koran is our constitution, the Prophet is our leader, jihad is our path and death in the name of Allah is our goal.” Since then, Sisi has directed his military to crush jihadists operating in the Sinai.
Fourth, he’s not only maintaining Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel but developing a close working relationship with Israeli leaders. Under Morsi, there was a real risk that Egypt would abrogate her 1979 peace treaty with Israel. But relations between the two countries have warmed considerably under Sisi. During the Obama years, several members of Congress told me of meetings they had in Cairo in which the Egyptian leader candidly shared that he had a better working relationship with Netanyahu than with Obama. Security ties between Cairo and Jerusalem are growing ever closer, especially in terms of battling terrorists in Sinai. And there are whispers Sisi is looking for the right moment to invite Israel’s premier to Cairo.
Fifth, he’s building closer ties with the Christian community. In 2014, Sisi visited Pope Francis in Rome. In 2015, for the first time that anyone could remember, Egypt’s president publicly celebrated Christmas with Coptic Christian leaders, then did so again in 2016. He’s helping restore dozens of Coptic churches damaged or destroyed by terrorists. Egypt’s parliament has approved measures to make it easier for churches to be built and renovated. Christian leaders in Egypt say they feel Sisi is sincerely working to protect and assist Christians, though clearly much more progress must be made, as was made evident in December when jihadists bombed a historic Coptic church in Cairo, killing 29 and wounding dozens more.
Sixth, he’s building close ties with the Jewish community. Unlike any of his predecessors, 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, Sisi welcomed a delegation of 36 American Jewish leaders to Cairo.
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. In December 2016, Sisi met with yet another Jewish delegation to Cairo, this time from the American Jewish Congress. Then, just last week, Sisi met with another delegation of Jewish leaders in Cairo. During the hour-anda- half meeting, the president discussed his efforts to fight terrorism, improve Egypt’s economy and advance peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. Sisi said the peace process was a top priority for him.
Yes, there are human rights violations in Egypt, economic challenges and a myriad of other serious issues Sisi must address.
One analyst of the Egyptian political scene writing in Foreign Policy magazine has noted 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 Trump-Pence administration – along with Christian and Jewish leaders – should press Egypt’s leaders to make more progress, especially on human rights. At the same time, we should thank Sisi for what he has done right while encouraging him to move further in the right direction.
The West needs a stable Egypt as a friend and an ally, now more than ever.
The author is a US-Israeli dual citizen and former aide to US and Israeli leaders. A New York Times best-selling novelist, he has sold more than three million books. His new thriller, Without Warning, is about a series of Islamic State attacks inside the American homeland. It releases on March 14.