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Trump welcomes Egypt’s Sissi to White House in reversal of U.S. policy

President Trump on Monday welcomed the leader of Egypt to the White House for the first time in eight years, pledging close cooperation with Abdel Fatah al-Sissi on counterterrorism operations and praising his leadership of the Middle Eastern nation.

“I just want to let everybody know, in case there was any doubt, that we are very much behind President al-Sissi,” Trump said, sitting next to his counterpart in the Oval Office. “He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation. We are very much behind Egypt and the people of Egypt. . . . We have strong backing.”

Sissi’s arrival at the White House marked a reversal of U.S. policy after President Barack Obama refused to invite him, because of concerns about human rights violations.

Trump and his aides did not mention human rights ahead of Sissi’s visit, suggesting that the issue would be raised in private, if at all. Instead, Trump and Sissi appeared focused on security, and they sought to demonstrate warmth, shaking hands during their brief remarks to reporters.

“The president made it clear this is a new day in the relationship between Egypt and the United States,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said.

During a later meeting between the presidents and their senior aides, Trump said the day’s work went well.

“We’ve made great progress today with Egypt, really great progress,” he said.

The White House summit marked the first of several high-profile encounters for Sissi in Washington during a six-day visit that includes meetings with congressional and business leaders and with International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde. Sissi also is expected to meet with King Abdullah of Jordan, who will visit Trump at the White House on Wednesday.

In his remarks in the Oval Office, Trump recalled their first meeting in September during the presidential campaign, a get-to-know-you conversation that he said ran well over the planned time as they struck up a personal connection.

“We agree on so many things,” Trump said. He added that Sissi also met with his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. “Hopefully, you liked me a lot more,” Trump said.

The last time an Egyptian leader visited the White House was in August 2009 when Hosni Mubarak met with Obama in the Oval Office. Mubarak resigned in 2011 during the mass protests in Cairo and other cities associated with the Arab Spring uprisings.

Through an interpreter, Sissi told Trump that he has a “deep appreciation and admiration of your unique personality, especially your standing very strongly in the counterterrorism field.”

Egypt is battling an Islamic State affiliate in its northern Sinai Peninsula and exerts regional influence in numerous crises where the United States is engaged, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen.

Sissi referred to an “evil ideology that is claiming innocent lives” and said the United States will find “Egypt and myself always beside you in bringing about effective strategies in counterterrorism.”

Ahead of the summit, the White House was criticized by human rights groups because of its refusal to publicly challenge Sissi over the case of Aya Hijazi, an Egyptian American humanitarian worker from Falls Church, Va., who has been incarcerated by the Egyptian regime for nearly three years. She has been accused of abusing children she was seeking to help through her nonprofit organization — charges that are widely considered false.

“We are alarmed by the repeated delays in the trial and verdict for Ms. Hijazi,” a bipartisan group of senators, led by Tim Kaine (D-Va.), wrote in a letter to Trump on Monday. “She has been unjustly imprisoned since May 2014 and held on unsubstantiated charges related to her nonprofit’s efforts to educate and rehabilitate street children.”

Trump did not mention her during his remarks.

The president used the occasion to tout his efforts to ramp up military spending, including “plane orders, ship orders, aircraft carrier orders.”

He said his administration will “rejuvenate our military to a higher level. In these times, more than ever before . . . that’s what we need.”