When Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi came to the White House two years ago, President Trump assured him, and everyone else who would listen, that the United States supported him.
“I just want to let everybody know, in case there was any doubt, that we are very much behind President al-Sissi,” Trump said at the time. “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.”
It was a reversal from the policy pursued by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, whose administration had not invited Sissi to Washington because of human rights concerns. Trump not only invited his Egyptian counterpart but declined to publicly mention human rights at all.
Sissi will be returning to the White House for a visit with Trump on Tuesday. This time, lawmakers in both chambers and on both sides of the aisle have made clear that they expect the president to raise certain issues with the man who led the 2013 military overthrow of democratically elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi and assumed the presidency himself the following year.
Congress has been pushed by some human rights activists and advocates to fill in what they perceive as a void left by the White House on human rights. Seventeen U.S. senators sent a letter Monday to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asking that the administration raise three issues: the detention of Americans in Egypt, the reported Egyptian purchase of Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter planes and “the erosion of political and human rights.”
“Notably, if adopted, proposed amendments to Egypt’s constitution that the parliament is currently considering would erode the independence of Egypt’s judiciary, giving President [Sissi] the power to hand-select the heads of judicial bodies, and may ultimately allow President [Sissi] to extend his rule until 2034,” the letter reads. It asks Trump to urge Sissi to “reconsider his support for these amendments” and express the “hope that you will stress the importance of promoting a free and transparent political process and stress the important role of human rights and civil society in building a more resilient and prosperous country.”
The signatories close with a reminder of the need for “a frank and open dialogue with our strategic partner.”
The letter was signed by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman James E. Risch (R-Idaho) and Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), the top Democrat on the committee, as well as Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.).
Also signing the letter was Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who will join, among others, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and House Foreign Affairs Committee members Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), a longtime critic of Sissi’s use of power, and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) at a Tuesday event organized by the Project on Middle East Democracy.
Of the constitutional amendments, Malinowski said last month, “It is a statement to the young people of the country: that none of you matter, that there is only one person who can hold power, only one generation that can hold power.”
“It is wrong. It is stupid. And it is generally very, very self-defeating, as we’ve seen throughout history,” he said.
Whether Trump will make a similar statement to Sissi is another matter entirely. The White House, in announcing Sissi’s visit, said in a statement that the two leaders would discuss “our robust military, economic, and counterterrorism cooperation” and “shared priorities in the region, including enhancing regional economic integration and addressing ongoing conflicts, and Egypt’s longstanding role as a lynchpin of regional stability.”