April 3, 2017

Egyptian President al-Sisi visit to Washington - my initial readout

President al-Sisi with President Trump at the White House

In his first official visit to the United States, Egyptian President 'Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi* met with U.S. President Donald Trump to improve American-Egyptian relations that declined precipitously under the Administration of Barack Obama. The Egyptians, major recipients of U.S. foreign aid - including military assistance - are participants in the alliance in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The relations between President al-Sisi and the Obama Administration - and President Obama personally - were strained since 2013 when then-General al-Sisi led a military coup against the democratically-elected government of President Muhammad al-Mursi. Mursi, a member of the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, was elected in 2012, about 18 months after the government of President Husni Mubarak was bought down in the Egyptian Revolution of 2011.

Mursi began to transform Egypt into a much more Islamist state, triggering massive popular demonstrations in 2013, in what was almost a repeat of the 2011 demonstrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square. At one point, 22 million people - well over a quarter of the entire population - actively protested the Mursi government. The potential for violence was growing as Mursi became more dictatorial and less democratic, governing by decree.

Sensing the danger to the fragile new Egyptian democracy, General al-Sisi - then chief of the armed forces - gave President Mursi an ultimatum: respond to the people's demands for change or face removal. Mursi refused - on July 3, 2013, General al-Sisi removed President Mursi from power, suspended the constitution, and called for new presidential and parliamentary elections.

The author with then-General al-Sisi in Cairo - 2013

I met with General al-Sisi in Cairo in 2013, shortly after he removed Mursi from office. He and I sparred verbally over the definition of that removal - I called it a coup d'etat; he would not.

I asked the general if he had mobilized units of the Egyptian Army and deployed them at key positions around Cairo and other major cities around the country. He allowed that he had, but claimed that it was not a coup as he himself did not assume power. Instead, al-Sisi asked the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to act as the interim executive authority pending new elections. I said it was a distinction without a difference.

The general insisted that he was merely implementing the "will of the Egyptian people." I tried to explain that the two are not exclusive, but he was adamant. I know the reason why he bristled at the use of the term coup.

American law is very specific in how the we react as a nation to military takeovers. I understood his concern that the United States government would likely label this a coup and be forced to react. His fears were well placed.

The United States, citing the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, immediately cut off all aid to Egypt, including the annual $1.5 billion in military assistance. Although President Obama had the authority to waive the requirements of the law, he chose not to do so and applied sanctions on the interim Egyptian government.

The results were immediate. The Egyptian armed forces, charged with keeping the peace in the face of the expected Muslim Brotherhood violence - aimed mainly at the mostly defenseless Coptic Christians - found themselves without access to needed military hardware and spare parts.

The Egyptians had to ground many of its AH-64 Apache helicopters and F-16 fighter-bombers when they were sorely needed to fight a growing Muslim Brotherhood insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula. The general told me if President Obama would not lift the embargo, he would go to the Russians.

Since the mid-1970s, the United States has spent a lot of money and enormous effort to wean the Egyptian military away from the Russians. We were on the verge of completely purging the armed forces of their Soviet/Russian/Eastern weapons and mentality, and converting them to a modern, more Western-style military.

Egyptian Army tweet: Egyptian Air Force Mig-35 test flight in Russia

Not one week after my meeting with al-Sisi, the Russian Foreign Minister and Defense Minister arrived in Cairo with an initial offer of $2 billion of military equipment to offset the loss of American aid.

The arms package included the advanced fourth-generation-plus multi-role MiG-35 (NATO: FULCRUM F) fighter aircraft, the state-of-the-art S-300 (NATO: SA-23) air defense system, and what Cairo regards as critical, the Mi-35 (NATO: HIND E) attack helicopter, in addition to a host of other equipment. That package has grown to well over $3 billion.

The Russians are not only making moves in Egypt to regain its position as a major arms supplier in the region. In October 2012, Moscow signed a $4.3 billion arms deal with Iraq. While that sounds huge, Iraq has ordered about $10 billion worth of military equipment from the United States in the last few years.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sensed that the reticence of the Obama administration to maintain its leadership role in the region and to be Egypt's primary supporter - and military supplier - provided an opening for Russia to regain what it perceives as its rightful place in the Middle East.

In addition to recent deals for long-term (initially 49 years) access to a naval facility and air base in Syria, and a port in Libya, the Russians have regained a foothold in Egypt as well. They recently deployed a small special forces unit to an airbase in western Egypt from which they can monitor events in Libya.

It is against this backdrop that President al-Sisi met with President Trump in Washington. Not only must Mr. Trump repair relations with a valuable Arab ally, he must also try to outmaneuver his aggressive Russian counterpart. President al-Sisi will do what Egyptian presidents have done for decades - pit Moscow against Washington. It will be an interesting contest.

Well played, Messrs al-Sisi and Putin.

* Value added trivia: Although the president's name is spelled al-Sisi, it is pronounced as-Sisi. Arabic has two types of letters: 14 solar and 14 lunar. When a word or name beginning with a solar letter is preceded by the definite article (al-), the l is not pronounced, and the following solar letter is doubled.