Mohamad Elmasry

Sisi and Trump: Brotherhood on the agenda

Egyptian President Sisi will meet Trump in Washington on Monday 3 April [AFP]

Date of publication: 31 March, 2017

Comment: Beyond the fawning compliments, Sisi's visit to Washington will likely see the Egyptian president keen to persuade Trump to outlaw the Muslim Brotherhood, writes Mohamad Elmasry.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is set to visit American President Donald Trump in Washington on Monday.

The high-level meeting is just as likely to feature ample discussion of "anti-terrorism" policy, as it is to continue a previously established pattern of mutual praise.

Trump and Sisi have in the past expressed their mutual admiration for each other. Trump's authoritarian tendencies have been well documented, so it should come as no surprise that he holds Sisi - a good old-fashioned dictator who came to power through a July 2013 military coup - in such high regard.

In some ways, Sisi is everything Trump appears to aspire to - a strongman without any serious political opposition. This past fall, Trump said of Sisi: "He took control of Egypt. And he really took control of it." After a September meeting at the United Nations, Trump called Sisi a "fantastic guy" and said that he and the Egyptian leader shared "good chemistry" and a "good feeling between [them]".

Sisi, meanwhile, was the first world leader to call and congratulate Trump after his November election victory. In interviews, the Egyptian president has been supportive both of Trump and some of the American president's more controversial policy proposals.

For example, in September Sisi told CNN that he had "no doubt" Trump would make a strong leader. Also, in a widely-reported November interview with a Portuguese television network, Sisi praised Trump and downplayed his anti-Muslim policy proposals.

When asked specifically about a possible Muslim registry, Sisi said that all countries try to "ensure security and stability… and we understand that."

During the same interview, Sisi downplayed Trump's Muslim travel ban - then merely a suggestion - and argued that such a ban should be seen not as an act of discrimination, but, rather, as part of America's larger set of "security measures".

Pressed by the interviewer on the issue of Trump's apparent "Islamophobia," Sisi seemed to justify Trump's fear of Muslims - "Terror is sprawling across the world... [it] has been a source of concern for all," he answered. 

Beyond their respective penchants for ironfisted rule, Sisi and Trump have substantive reasons to like one another - they share similar worldviews and there is much on which the two agree. Monday's meeting in Washington is likely to feature much more agreement than disagreement.

For starters, both Trump and Sisi are committed to Israeli security. The Trump administration shows no signs of upending longstanding US diplomatic and financial support for Israel. Sisi's administration, meanwhile, has spent the better part of two years warming up to the Israeli government.

And although the Trump era is only months old, there has already been at least some formal cooperation between Egypt and the United States vis-à-vis Israel. In December, Trump reportedly persuaded Sisi to withdraw a UN resolution condemning illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. 

More generally, Sisi and Trump view "terrorism" and security through a similar lens. The two men had a warm security-related phone conversation in January, and, notably, have expressed similar desires to use strong-armed power to confront the threat of violent extremism.

During a 2015 campaign rally, Trump said he intended to "bomb the shit out of" IS. Just last week, Trump ordered airstrikes in Mosul, Iraq - approximately 200 civilians were killed. Sisi, for his part, has overseen the most expansive violent crackdown in modern Egyptian history, all in the name of fighting "terrorism".

As part of its post-coup "anti-terrorism" policy programme, Sisi's government passed draconian legislation that classifies certain non-violent forms of "civil disobedience" as "terrorism".

The regime used military firepower against "terrorists" in the Sinai, criminalised anti-government protests, arrested tens of thousands of Egyptians on non-violent political charges, intensified its programme of prison torture, instituted a policy of mass death sentencing, and carried out unlawful mass killings of unarmed civilians. 

Importantly, the Egyptian president has cast the "terrorism" net particularly wide, painting all Islamists - including non-violent ones - with one broad extremist brush.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which won several democratic elections in 2011 and 2012, only to be removed from power by force as part of Sisi's coup, were declared a "terrorist group", and have been repeatedly blamed for acts of violent extremism carried out in Egypt.

The labelling and accusations came despite the fact that no evidence has linked the Brotherhood to violent extremism. In fact, the group has consistently denounced "terrorism," and - perhaps most significantly - IS-affiliated groups that consider the Brotherhood to be apostates, have repeatedly claimed responsibility for the violence afflicting Egypt.

For its part, the Trump administration is looking, too, to cast its "terrorism" net particularly wide. Frank Gaffney, a key Trump adviser, has been pushing the American president to redefine "terrorism" by thinking about it in broader terms.

Gaffney, like Sisi, believes the Muslim Brotherhood is a "terrorist organisation," and he and Steve Bannon, another key Trump adviser, have been behind a recent push to designate the Brotherhood a "terror group" in the United States.

The move would have far-reaching implications for many Muslim American organisations and allow the Trump administration to crack down on a wide variety of Muslim figures and groups.

The topic of the Muslim Brotherhood will almost certainly be on the agenda for Monday's meeting, and the Egyptian president will likely work hard to convince his American counterpart of the need for the "terrorist" designation. Should America follow through, Sisi would be able to sell the move as a victory at home.

And Sisi is in dire need of political victories. Significant swathes of Egyptians are likely still sympathetic to Mohamed Morsi, the democratically elected leader Sisi ousted as president in 2013.

Months after the coup, scientific polling conducted by an American research firm, Zogby Research Associates, showed Morsi's approval rating to be about on par with Sisi's. Since those embarrassing results, western polling results have been conspicuously absent from Egypt.

In November, Reuters reported that the Egyptian government warned its citizens from participating in foreign opinion polls - a government statement called on Egyptians "to be cautious around those twisted methods of gathering information about the situation inside the country that aim to harm Egyptian national security".

More importantly than all of this, though, is the fact that many Egyptians have grown increasingly frustrated at the lack of progress in Sisi's Egypt. The Egyptian president has failed to deliver on many of his most important campaign promises and is facing an increasingly restless population (and one which has already ousted one dictator, Hosni Mubarak in 2011).

Sisi ran for president on a security platform, but hasn't been able to bring about stability and security - indeed, Egypt has experienced considerably more violence since he took over, than in the years preceding his presidency.

Moreover, his famed Suez Canal expansion project has failed to generate anything close to the amount of revenue he promised, and Egypt's economy continues to sputter. Some analysts have suggested that another Egyptian uprising may be a matter of when, not if. 

And Trump's first months in office haven't exactly been plain sailing. His Muslim travel ban was rejected by the American court system (twice), he was unable to repeal and pass a replacement for the Affordable Care Act, and he currently suffers from one of the lowest approval ratings for a new president in US history.

As if all of that wasn't bad enough, Trump is facing investigation over his presidential campaign's alleged ties to the Russian government, something which could, at least in theory, lead to impeachment. 

Perhaps more than anything, then, Monday's meeting in Washington will feature two leaders in similar predicaments: Both need each other's mutual support, but mostly, they are just hoping to stay afloat a little while longer.

Mohamad Hamas Elmasry is an Associate Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, and an Assistant Professor of Communications at the University of North Alabama. He writes about the sociology of news, the media and race, and Egyptian politics and media. 

Follow him on Twitter: @elmasry_mohamad

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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