US President Donald Trump praised his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, as a “great president” as a bipartisan group of US lawmakers raised concerns about Sisi’s record on human rights, efforts to keep him in office for many years and planned Russian arms purchases.
Egypt’s parliament proposed constitutional reforms aimed at allowing Sisi to remain in power until 2034, which senior US lawmakers and advocacy groups criticise, along with Egypt’s repression of human rights.
Asked if he backed efforts to allow Sisi to potentially stay in power for 15 more years, Trump told reporters: “I think he’s doing a great job. I don’t know about the effort, I can just tell you he is doing a great job … great president.”
Sisi is a former general who came to power after the military overthrew Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in 2013 following mass protests. Sisi was elected the following year.
He has since overseen a sweeping crackdown on both Islamist and liberal opposition. Activists consider it the worst repression in Egypt’s modern history.
Trump, who referred to Sisi as “my friend,” made no mention of human rights as the two spoke to reporters.
In a later statement stressing Trump’s commitment to Egypt, the White House mentioned the issue saying: “The United States encourages the Egyptian government to preserve space for civil society and to protect human rights.”
PRAISING RELATIONSHIP WITH EGYPT
Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation, is of strategic importance to the United States because of its peace treaty with Israel and control of the Suez Canal, a vital waterway for global commerce as well as the US military. The US Congress has set aside $1.4 billion in aid to Egypt in recent years.
There continues to be support for aid US lawmakers voice concerns about Egypt’s reported signing of a $2 billion deal with Russia to buy more than 20 Sukhoi SU-35 fighter jets and weapons.
Trump did not answer a question about Egypt’s planned Russian arms purchase, which could expose the country to US sanctions. He said “progress has been made in terms of terrorism and other things with Egypt.”
“We’ve never had a better relationship, Egypt and the United States, than right now,” Trump added as the men spoke to reporters before meeting in the White House Oval Office.
“All the credit goes to you, Mister President,” Sisi responded through an interpreter. “Thank you for your support on all fronts.”
In a letter released on Monday, leading senators said Egypt “unjustly detained” more than a dozen American, and called for their release. They also raised “serious concerns about the erosion of political and human rights.”
The letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was signed by Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Republican chairman, Jim Risch, the panel’s senior Democrat, Bob Menendez, and 15 other senators.
During a congressional hearing, Patrick Leahy, Senate Appropriations Committee’s top Democrat, asked Pompeo to explain Trump’s praise for authoritarian leaders.
“Maybe you can explain why a dictator like Egypt’s President al-Sisi is feted at the White House, Russia’s President (Vladimir) Putin, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Turkey’s President (Tayyip) Erdogan are praised as strong leaders and the Saudi Crown Prince is treated as an indispensable friend and ally,” he said.
Pompeo disputed the Trump administration was treading lightly on human rights and praised Egypt’s actions in support of Israel. “We have not been remotely bashful,” he said.
The Egyptian embassy was not immediately available for comment.
The White House said in a statement Trump and Sisi discussed water issues. “These complex issues must be addressed through negotiations and with respect for international best practices,” the statement said.
The statement did not refer to a specific water issue, but Egypt criticised a dam Ethiopia is building on the River Nile, saying it could restrict water from Ethiopia’s highlands, through the deserts of Sudan to Egyptian fields and reservoirs.