As President-elect Donald Trump prepares to take office next month, concerns about the direction of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East is already looming in the air. With the Trump administration at risk of triggering tensions with traditional American allies in the region, in particular those in the Persian Gulf, there are also high expectations for a fresh start with the others. Indeed, Egypt’s strongman President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi could emerge as one of the potential winners of the Trump foreign policy.
There is little secret that relations between Obama and al-Sisi have been marked by persistent tensions that affected bilateral relations. The Obama administration’s support for the Arab Spring largely discredited the White House’s credibility among the higher ranks of the Egyptian political establishment and, in particular, within the Egyptian army.
Indeed, the Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East remained an epitome of “the divide and rule” strategy for many in Egypt. With a direct meddling into domestic affairs, it was viewed as continuation of efforts for causing a controlled havoc across the Arab world that started during the George W. Bush Presidency.
Despite friendlier recent statements from the White House towards Egypt, the relations between Obama and al-Sisi remain complicated. However, the situation might take a dramatic turn after Trump’s inauguration.
The “friendship” between Trump and al-Sisi began even before the Republican candidate won the elections in November. Al-Sisi met Trump in New York in September, and the meeting resulted in the Egyptian President calling Trump “a strong leader”, while Trump responded by calling al-Sisi “a fantastic guy.”
Meanwhile, many in the Middle East treated the news of Trump’s election with deep concerns; al-Sisi welcomed it with enthusiasm. The Egyptian President was the first world leader to congratulate Trump on his victory, highlighting hopes for a “new spirit into US-Egyptian relations.”
Al-Sisi’s support for Trump might come as a surprise to many. Egypt is one of the world’s most populous Muslim nations and Trump still maintains its hardline stance on implementing the ban on Muslim immigrants to the United States. However, the Egyptian President foresees future benefits of the President-elect foreign policy that outweigh its provocative statements.
Despite Trump’s hardline anti-Muslims rhetoric, he emerges as a game-changer to the Obama U.S. foreign policy in the region. For example, Trump’s views on Muslim Brotherhood resembles those of al-Sisi. The organization is currently categorized as a terrorist group in Egypt, and Trump labels it as “radical”.
Similarly to al-Sisi, Trump is also supportive of a Russian-led campaign in Syria and interprets it as a part of greater efforts of a “war on extremism”. Moreover, Trump seems willing to cooperate with the Kremlin in halting the expansion of radical jihadists across the Middle East. This is a crucial point for Cairo which is deeply concerned by the surge of extremists both in its immediate neighborhood and in the Sinai Peninsula.
Both Trump and al-Sisi also share a mutual appreciation for a strongman leadership. Trump has already demonstrated during the meeting in September that he does not intend on lecturing Cairo for its disregard for human rights.
In fact, the bilateral relations under the Trump administration might resemble those when George W. Bush was U.S. President and paid less attention, relatively to Obama, to the issue of “democratization in Egypt.” It is fair to say that Bush and Mubarak still butted heads over issues of human rights; but Trump is likely to be even less concerned.
Cairo is also hoping that Trump’s policy might contribute to opening ways for a thaw in U.S.-Russia relations,. Cairo and Moscow have become close friends over the past several years and their ties have grown even stronger after the Kremlin launched its military campaign in Syria.
Overall, the strategic rapprochement between Egypt and the United States could deliver a long-awaited balance to the Egyptian foreign policy while opening more opportunities for maneuvers between the White House and the Kremlin. Furthermore, the improved relationship will likely elevate Cairo’s stance within the regional balance of power, breaking away from its dependence on the Gulf monarchies—which became extremely burdensome after the Arab Spring.
Cairo’s expectations of the Trump’s policy could shed light on the Egypt’s recent decision to postpone a vote on a UN Security Council resolution against Israeli settlements—a move that caused many in the Arab world to raise eyebrows. Indeed, while many in Egypt are extremely critical of Israeli actions in the West Bank, it was important for al-Sisi to accentuate on the readiness for a fresh start with the incoming Trump administration.