Rarely does a vice presidential trip carry high stakes for the future of US foreign policy. But all eyes will be on Mike Pence next week as he heads to Israel and Egypt.
The controversy over US President Donald Trump’s Jerusalem policy has significantly complicated the trip and threatens to undermine Washington’s heretofore rapidly warming relationship with its Sunni Arab allies.
It is critical that Pence not be perceived as taking a “victory lap” for the administration’s decision to recognize west Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Rather, he needs to carefully listen to Arab concerns, and cast a compelling vision of how achieving true peace – with America’s help – can dramatically improve the lives of Palestinian, Egyptian, Jordanian and Israeli moms, dads and children, while respecting the passions all Muslims, Christians and Jews have for the Holy City.
It is also vital that Pence tangibly strengthen our strategic alliance with Egypt. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi is exactly the kind of friend America needs in the region and we need to help him, not undermine him.
I first met Sisi in Washington in April. I told him how encouraged I was that he has been meeting with Coptic Christian, Roman Catholic and American Jewish leaders to listen to their concerns and answer questions. When I asked if he would be interested in meeting with Evangelicals, I was taken aback by how quickly he invited me to bring a delegation to Cairo. I readily agreed. After all, how often does a Jewish Evangelical have the opportunity to meet with the leader of Egypt on the eve of Passover and say, “Let my people come”? True to his word, Sisi welcomed his first-ever delegation of American Evangelical Christian leaders on November 1. We were scheduled for a one-hour meeting; it lasted nearly three.
The conversation was friendly, frank, and at times even humorous.
To maintain our independence, each member of the delegation paid his or her own way, and we arranged our own schedule to hear from a wide range of Egyptians. Over five days, we met with senior officials such the religious affairs and endowments minister, who oversees Egypt’s 120,000 mosques, and the grand mufti, the nation’s highest official of religious law. We also met with business executives, 60 Egyptian pastors and Christian ministry leaders, and other private citizens.
We came away impressed by the progress Egypt has made, and by the gratitude Egyptians feel for the man they believe saved their country.
When was the last time a country has been liberated from a radical Islamist reign of terror not by the US Marines, but by 22 million patriotic citizens signing their names on petitions to demand the Islamists peacefully step down? In the summer of 2013, Egypt did not have an effective impeachment law. The terrified masses had no legal recourse to legally remove president Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood from office. When Morsi refused to respond to their grievances, the people flooded into their streets – millions of them, night after night – demanding freedom.
Sisi, who was then defense minister, deserves a Nobel peace prize for listening to the people and taking bold action to safeguard their rights. He did not launch a coup d’etat, seizing power for himself in the dead of night.
Instead, he publicly gave Morsi 48 hours to submit to the will of the people and step down. When Morsi refused, Sisi ordered the military to move. Then he set about to restore order and scheduled national elections. In June 2014, the people overwhelmingly elected Sisi president, giving him 96.1% of the vote.
(Morsi had been elected in June 2012 with 51.7%.) Egypt’s battle with terrorists is far from over, as the recent attack on the mosque in northern Sinai that killed 311 Egyptian Muslims and wounded another 128 underscored. But as a former high-ranking general, Sisi is well qualified to win this war, and despite setbacks he is succeeding in re-establishing stability.
Indeed, there is a palpable sense that Egypt is rising. Tourism increased more than 50% over last year. Foreign direct investment is up 14.5%, and last quarter’s 5.2% growth in GDP was the strongest in nearly a decade.
Leaders of Egypt’s Christian community told us they are encouraged by the progress they see. Sisi has kept his promise to rebuild all 56 of the churches burned or damaged during the summer of 2013. He signed a groundbreaking law to give Christians the right to build and expand their churches, and expedite the process of getting new churches licensed to operate freely, nearly unprecedented in the Arab Muslim world. Sisi told us he will build a large Coptic Orthodox Church in the new administrative capital, in addition to a large mosque. He is the first Egyptian president to attend Christmas mass in solidarity with the Christians.
To be sure, Egyptian Christians still face many challenges. But the changes are real and positive.
Meanwhile, Sisi is determined to build upon the legacy of the late Anwar Sadat. He has built strong intelligence-sharing ties with Israel and insists a final peace deal must ensure Israeli security. He is working to reconcile rival Palestinian factions and improve humanitarian conditions in Gaza. As leader of the first Arab nation to make peace with Israel, Sisi believes he is well positioned to help others follow Egypt’s lead. We believe he is right.
Sisi readily acknowledged the enormous challenges Egypt still faces. He simply asked us to “tell Americans the truth” about what we saw, and to pray for him and for all Egyptians.
In Cairo, Pence will find a leader and nation determined to defeat the forces of radical Islamism, working hard to advance moderate Islam, serious about protecting Christians and all minority faith communities, and committed to creating peace between Israel and the Palestinians. He will also find a nation deeply offended by the White House’s Jerusalem decision.
What will the vice president do to reassure Egyptians that America deeply respects them, and that their alliance with the US is worth the risks and occasional disappointments? The region and the world are watching.
The author is The New York Times best-selling author of 12 novels and three non-fiction books about the Middle East. A dual US-Israeli citizen, his latest thriller, Without Warning, was released in October in mass market paperback from Tyndale House Publishers.