When asked Monday whether he was concerned about the anti-Sissi demonstrations, Trump shrugged the suggestion aside.
“Demonstrations? No, everybody has demonstrations,” he told reporters on the sidelines of the U.N. gathering. “Egypt has a great leader. He’s highly respected; he’s brought order. Before he was here, there was very little order. There was chaos. So I’m not worried about that.”
Since Sissi assumed power after a 2013 military coup he engineered, tens of thousands of people have been arrested, with some of them tortured, according to extensive documentation by human rights groups. Last year, Amnesty International said Sissi’s crackdown on journalists and critics had turned Egypt into an “open-air prison.”
This month, a group of human rights organizations called on members of the European Union to review allegations of widespread abuse in Egypt, claiming that “human rights violations have increased sharply” in recent years.
But Trump has consistently praised Sissi in public, while apparently celebrating the Egyptian president’s authoritarian rule in private.
The Wall Street Journal reported this month that while waiting for Sissi at the Group of Seven summit in Biarritz, France, in August, Trump was overheard calling out, “Where’s my favorite dictator?”
And when Sissi visited Washington in April, Trump said the Egyptian leader was doing a “great job” and is a “great president.” In the same visit, Sissi said U.S.-Egypt relations “have not been better.”
Trump and Sissi’s meeting Monday came just days after viral videos from a former government contractor alleging Sissi was complicit in a large-scale corruption scandal provoked protests in Egypt. People took to the streets in Cairo and elsewhere Friday, chanting, “Rise up, fear not, Sissi must go.” The protests were relatively small but significant because such concerted public displays against Sissi are rare.
Human rights advocates in Egypt have warned that a crackdown is underway and that the hundreds of protesters detained over the weekend face charges of spreading fake news and belonging to terrorist organizations.
On Monday, New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger drew further attention to Trump’s relationship with the Egyptian government. In an op-ed about threats to press freedom worldwide, Sulzberger described a 2017 incident in which a Trump administration official warned the newspaper that Egyptian authorities planned to arrest Declan Walsh, the Times’s bureau chief in Cairo.
The official expressed to the Times that the Trump administration “intended to sit on the information and let the arrest be carried out,” Sulzberger wrote. The official risked their career to inform the newspaper of the threat. Walsh, who is Irish, then sought help from the Irish Embassy to leave Egypt.
Michele Dunne, director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said she was concerned that Trump’s recent rhetoric on Egypt could be interpreted as an endorsement of Sissi’s crackdown.
“The United States can’t control what Sissi does or what happens inside of Egypt, but it can control the stance that the U.S. government takes on this,” Dunne said. Washington should explicitly stand up for the right to peacefully protest, she said, in part so “it’s clear that whatever the Egyptians do, they didn’t do with a green light from Washington.”
Dunne said Trump sees Sissi as a strategically important partner in the fight against extremism. But what he fails to see, she said, is that Sissi’s “repression is, in fact, fostering radicalization of Egyptian youth and that human rights abuses have serious negative consequences for the fight against extremism and terrorism.”
Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Trump may be personally drawn to Sissi in part because the Egyptian leader doesn’t shy from confronting his opposition and also likes to align himself with leaders who take the same approach.
“I’m sure President Sissi lavishly praises President Trump, and I’m sure that helps reinforce their relationship,” he said.
Alterman noted that this is a “dangerous moment” for Sissi, given the crisis at home. But he probably sees his preplanned U.N. trip as an opportunity to garner points on the world stage.
Sissi’s U.N. visit “is portrayed in Egypt as a sign that Egypt is one of the most important and powerful countries in the world and that the world wants to meet President Sissi,” Alterman said.