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Trump congratulates Egypt’s Sissi after what critics call a sham election

President Trump shakes hands with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi in the Oval Office of the White House on April 3, 2017. (Evan Vucci/AP)

President Trump congratulated Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi on his landslide reelection victory, the White House said Monday — an election critics derided as a sham that all but guaranteed al-Sissi a second term in office.

The statement is another signal of the Trump administration’s stated goal to improve relations with Egypt after Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, declined to invite Sissi to the White House because of concerns about his human rights record. It comes shortly after Trump faced widespread pushback for congratulating another foreign leader, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who similarly won a race that was broadly criticized as neither free nor fair. 

“The two leaders affirmed the strategic partnership between the United States and Egypt, and noted that they look forward to advancing this partnership and addressing common challenges,” the White House said Monday in a statement.

Meanwhile, the State Department took a notably different tone on the Egyptian elections, with spokeswoman Heather Nauert saying the agency was “encouraging respect for and protection of basic rights and freedoms.”

“We have noted reports of constraints on freedoms of expression and association in the run-up to the elections,” Nauert said. “We will continue to encourage a broadening of opportunities for political participation for Egyptians, and emphasize the importance of the protection of human rights and the vital role of civil society in Egypt.”

In his bid for a second four-year term, Sissi won with more than 97 percent of the vote in an election that drew about 41 percent turnout, according to the Associated Press. The vote was held from March 26 to 28.

In an election with no serious challengers, Egyptians head to the polls to vote for Sissi

He faced no serious opponent, with all credible challengers pushed out of the race; Lt. Gen. Sami Annan and Col. Ahmed Konsowa, both former military commanders, had been accused of breaking military regulations by announcing their presidential bids, and former prime minister Ahmed Shafik was reportedly intimidated after he had announced his intentions to run for president.

Trump has previously stressed his desire for close relations with the Egyptian leader, welcoming Sissi to the White House last April and praising his leadership during the Oval Office meeting as a “fantastic job in a very difficult situation.” Before that meeting, the last time an Egyptian leader visited the White House was when Hosni Mubarak met with Obama in August 2009. 

“I just want to let everybody know, in case there was any doubt, that we are very much behind President al-Sissi,” Trump said during last April’s meeting, adding: “We are very much behind Egypt and the people of Egypt. . . . We have strong backing.”

Since then, Trump and Sissi have communicated on a range of security and economic matters. Last month, the two leaders discussed the crisis in Syria, as well as what the White House called “Russia and Iran’s irresponsible support of the Assad regime’s brutal attacks against innocent civilians.”