CAIRO — On Saturday, the first day of the federal government shutdown, Vice President Pence arrived here in the late afternoon to meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, whom he praised and repeatedly called a “friend” of the United States.
The leaders spent roughly four hours together and delivered brief statements before a small group of reporters who are traveling with Pence — a nearly nine-minute event that only happened after intense negotiation between Pence's staff and Egyptian authorities, who wanted to limit access to one television camera with limited sound and, at one point, physically barred reporters from leaving a bus.
Sitting in gold-gilded chairs in front of an intricate tapestry showing a map of Egypt, Sissi said through an interpreter that Pence is a “dear guest” and that his visit “speaks volumes” about Egypt's relationship with the Trump administration. Pence said that the two countries had been “drifting apart” until Trump took office but that their “ties have never been stronger,” especially as they work together to fight terrorism in the region. He added that he chose to visit Egypt first on his four-day, three-country Middle East tour because of the importance of the U.S.-Egyptian relationship.
Pence denounced a terrorist attack on an Egyptian mosque in November that killed more than 300, along with recent attacks on Coptic Christians.
The public comments were warm and friendly with no mention of the disagreements between the two countries, such as President Trump's decision late last year to formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and that Egypt has imprisoned several American citizens, often on questionable charges. As Pence prepared to leave on Saturday night, he told reporters that both of these issues came up in private conversations.
Pence arrived at the presidential palace late Saturday afternoon, along with a bus carrying the 12 reporters who are traveling with him in the Middle East this week. A CNN journalist with a video camera left the bus, but then an Egyptian official planted himself in front of the door and would not allow anyone else to leave. One of Pence's staff members firmly told the man that he needed to let everyone out, but he refused to move, forcing her to shout out the windows to others who might be able to help.
After about three minutes, reporters were allowed off the bus but they could not take cellphones, cameras or laptops into the palace. For about 90 minutes, the reporters waited in a lavish room in the palace as the vice president's communications staff tried to convince Egyptian authorities to allow reporters to see part of the meeting. The Egyptians eventually relented when Pence learned what had happened and requested that reporters be briefly allowed inside.
After two meetings, the two leaders and their top aides had dinner together. Pence then flew to Amman, Jordan, where he is scheduled to have a similar meeting with King Abdullah II on Sunday.
Before taking off, Pence told reporters traveling with him that he and Sissi discussed terrorism, isolating North Korea, religious freedom, the need for make changes Egypt's oversight of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and “the situation for two Americans who are currently being held, imprisoned here in Egypt.”
The two Americans in question are Mostafa Kassem and Ahmed Etiwy, who the United States contends were both wrongfully imprisoned in 2013. Sissi assured him he would give their cases “very serious attention” and “personal attention,” Pence said.
“I told him we’d like to see those American citizens restored to their families and restored to our country,” he said.
On Jerusalem, Pence said that he heard Sissi out and reaffirmed that Trump is committed to maintaining the status quo when it comes to Holy Sites in Jerusalem and a final resolution on boundaries will be decided in the peace process. If both sides agree, the United States would support a two state solution, according to Pence. “My perception was that he was encouraged by that message,” he said.
Pence called the overall meeting very productive.
“I will leave Egypt very encouraged by the conversations and even more grateful for the strong strategic partnership that the United States enjoys with Egypt,” he said.
The vice president's trip is happening despite the federal government shutdown in the United States. Pence's press secretary, Alyssa Farah, said Friday that the “vice president’s meetings with the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and Israel are integral to America’s national security and diplomatic objectives.”
Air Force Two was over the Atlantic Ocean when news came that Congress had not reached agreement on a spending deal and that the government would immediately shut down. Pence received the news from his chief of staff, Nick Ayers, who then briefed reporters on the plane and distributed a written statement from the vice president.
About three hours later, the plane stopped to refuel at Ireland’s Shannon Airport. Pence and his wife, Karen Pence, spent about 20 minutes in the terminal talking with dozens of young members of the Air Force who were headed to Kuwait, many for their first deployment. The couple spent most of the time posing for photos, shaking hands and thanking the troops for their service — but the shutdown also came up, as service members and other federal employees will not receive their paychecks until the shutdown ends.
“We’ll get this thing figured out in Washington,” Pence said after one group photo. “You guys stay focused on your mission.”
As he prepared to return to Air Force Two, Pence spoke with reporters — despite urging from his wife that they needed to stay on schedule and get back on the plane — about his interactions with the troops, using it as an opportunity to attack Democrats as not doing enough to avoid a shutdown. When one reporter noted that members of the vice president’s party voted against a short-term spending bill and that some Democrats voted for it, Pence said that responsibility falls primarily with Democrats in the Senate.
“Democrats in the Senate — with a few exceptions on either side — chose to put politics ahead of our national defense, put politics ahead of meeting the obligations of our national government,” he said, standing in an airport food court. “And that’s just unacceptable. It’s disappointing.”
When asked how long the shutdown might last, Pence said, “It’s going to take as long as it takes.” He said that members of Congress need to “do their job” and quickly end the impasse.