Donald Trump welcomes Egypt's president and says he has 'been close to him ever since the first time we met'

Harriet Alexander
Donald Trump and Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi meet in September 2016 - AFP

President Donald Trump has heaped praise on Egypt’s strongman leader, telling Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi that he had been a fan “ever since we first met”.

Welcoming Mr Sisi to the Oval Office, the president was effusive in his praise and said he had “done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation”.

“I have been close to him since the first time we met,” said Mr Trump – adding that they had their first encounter on the campaign trail.

“Hopefully now you like me more,” he joked.

We agree on so many things.

“We are very much behind President Sisi – he has done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation."

Mr Trump went on to say that America's military might was squarely behind Egypt's rulers.

“We are building up our military to the highest level we have probably ever had. We are rejuvenating our military to a highest ever level.

“I just want to say to you, Mr President, you have a great ally in the US and in me.”

Mr Sisi, speaking through a translator, returned the compliment, pointing out that it was the first time in eight years that an Egyptian president had been invited to the White House.

Their meeting represents an end to the coldness with which Mr Sisi was treated by Barack Obama, who made a point of not inviting him to Washington.  

Mr Sisi first took power in a military coup in 2013 but even after he was elected a year later, Mr Obama continued to keep him at arm’s length and criticised his bloody crackdown on Islamists and political opponents in Egypt.

The Egyptian president, however, pledged his support for Mr Trump. 

“Since we met last September I have had a deep appreciation and admiration of your unique personality, especially since you are standing so strong against terrorism,” said Mr Sisi.

“Very strongly and openly you will find Egypt and myself beside you.”

The pair then moved to the Cabinet Room, where they were joined by Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, and James Mattis, defence secretary.

"We’re having great discussions with representatives of Egypt and with the president,” said Mr Trump. “We have many things in common. We have a few things that we don’t agree on. This is going to be a very productive day and it’s a great honour."

Mr Trump has voiced no criticisms of Mr Sisi’s human rights record in Egypt and a White House official said the new administration would keep its disputes with Cairo private. 

“Our approach is to handle these types of sensitive issues in a private, more discreet way. We believe it’s the most effective way to advance those issues to a favourable outcome,” the White House official said.   

Human Rights Watch accused the Trump administration of glossing over Egypt’s human rights abuses in pursuit of its counter-terrorism goals.

“Neither side in this relationship seems interested in promoting human rights,” the group said. 

New presidents entering office often look to “reset” the US-Egyptian relationship, which is based on a complicated sinew of counter-terrorism, regional diplomacy and Israel’s security.

“President Trump wants to reset relations with Egypt, believing that his predecessor went too hard on Sisi," said Michele Dunne, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

"Ironically, Obama said the same thing about Bush—that he was too hard on Mubarak—when he came to office in 2009.”

Anti-government demonstrations in February 2011, which eventually saw Hosni Mubarak toppled from power Credit: AFP

When he first took office Mr Obama also kept his criticism of the Mubarak regime muted, in the hope of jump starting an Egyptian-US relationship that had stalled under George W Bush.   

Monday’s high-profile visit will help Mr Sisi present himself before his domestic audience as an international statesman, even as Egypt’s economy stutters and the security situation deteriorates

But the Egyptian leader also arrived with a tangible wish list of support he hopes to get from the new US administration. 

Egypt receives around $1.3 billion a year from the US in military aid, making the largest recipient after Israel, but Mr Sisi is pushing for more support as his forces struggle against an Isil affiliate in the Sinai that has killed hundreds of Egyptian soldiers. 

Mr Sisi is also eager to see the US designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, as he has done in Egypt.  Mr Trump has flirted with the idea but it has been dismissed by US diplomats, who worry it would inflame relations with Turkey, and government lawyers who argue the Islamist group does not meet the legal definitions of a terrorist.    

The US president also hopes to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal and Egypt is likely to play a critical role in Mr Trump’s peacemaking efforts. 

Mr Sisi and Mr Trump first met in September 2016, in the midst of the presidential campaign, and both emerged from their New York encounter with warm words to say about each other. 

“He’s a fantastic guy, he took control of Egypt, he really took control of it,” Mr Trump enthused, adding that Mr Sisi “took the the terrorists out”. 

Mr Sisi was one of the first world leaders to call Mr Trump after his election victory and said the businessman had the makings of a strong leader.

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