Judith Miller: Trump, Egypt and the future

The Palm Sunday bombings of Coptic churches in Egypt are a tragedy for Egyptian Christians, the Middle East’s oldest and largest Christian community and for all Egyptians who oppose the Islamic State’s intolerance and terror.

But this calamity has political benefits for Egypt’s beleaguered President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. The twin suicide bombings, the worst terror attack against Egypt’s Christians since 28 people were killed near St. Mark’s Coptic Cathedral in Cairo last December, have not only helped el-Sisi cement ties with President Trump, but they have given him even greater latitude to crack down on opponents of his policies.

Hours after the bombings, el-Sisi declared a three-month state of emergency, expanding his government’s already enormous powers to detain and arrest not only potential terrorists, but political critics.

Trump lost no time in reaching out to the Egyptian president, whom he had hosted in Washington days earlier, to reassure him of his administration’s steadfast support in his fight against Islamic extremism. According to a White House statement, Trump called to extend his deepest sympathies “to Egypt and to the families who lost loved ones in the heinous terrorist attacks against Christian churches on Palm Sunday.” He not only condemned the attacks that killed at least 44 people and wounded dozens more, but he also expressed his “confidence in President Al Sisi’s commitment to protect Christians and all Egyptians.”

The call, coupled with el-Sisi’s visit to Washington, which Egyptian officials quickly proclaimed a success, has bestowed on Egypt’s president the international legitimacy and American support he has craved — but been denied — for so long. President Obama did not hide his disapproval of el-Sisi, who came to power in July 2013 when the Egyptian army ousted the elected, but hugely unpopular, president — Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Washington suspended military aid to Cairo in October 2013 and didn’t resume it until March 2015. Egyptians were particularly furious about the withholding of Apache helicopters, which officials complained were needed to fight Islamic militants on two fronts: in the Sinai Peninsula, where an intense insurgency has raged, and at its border with militant Palestinian Hamas, where Egypt has worked closely, but quietly, with Israel to close tunnels and prevent weapons smuggling.

Since his election, by contrast, Trump has indicated on several occasions, most recently during el-Sisi’s visit, that he is willing to downplay concerns about el-Sisi’s repressive tactics at home — mass detentions of tens of thousands, torture and extrajudicial killings — so that the two countries can work together against the Islamic State and to defend Egypt’s Christians, who constitute an estimated 10 percent of Egypt’s 95 million people. During the visit, Trump enthusiastically praised el-Sisi, saying he has done “a fantastic job in a very difficult situation.”

El-Sisi has worked assiduously to develop ties with Trump, meeting with him (and holding a less cordial meeting with Hillary Clinton) during a visit to New York before Trump’s unexpected election victory. He was among the first foreign leaders to telephone to congratulate Trump after his victory.

America’s $1.3 billion in annual military aid is vital for Egypt, whose economy is ailing after five years of political turmoil. El-Sisi has recently introduced a number of fiscal reforms, including cuts in subsidies for sugar, bread and fuel, and he has introduced taxes aimed at curbing a growing budget deficit. Last November, Egypt floated the Egyptian pound to alleviate a dollar shortage and attract foreign investment. But tourism, a mainstay of the economy, remains high, and so does unemployment, particularly among youth.

American officials are increasingly worried about the growth of ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula. Eric Trager of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy estimates that 2,000 Egyptian soldiers have been killed in Sinai since September 2013, when Egypt began a major campaign against the Islamic State branch in Egypt. This is a “shocking figure,” he writes, since experts put ISIS in Sinai’s membership at 1,000-1,500. Although Egypt decapitated the group’s leadership last summer, new leaders have emerged who are more closely aligned with the Islamic State’s leadership in Raqqa, Syria. They, in turn, have increasingly targeted Egyptian civilians, particularly Egypt’s Copts. The Islamic State has vowed to increase attacks against Christians and Christian churches. In February, hundreds of Christians were driven out of northern Sinai by a series of killings.

El-Sisi has vowed to protect the Christian population and has increased security at churches, but so far he has failed to stop such attacks. Samuel Tadros, of Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom, estimates that there have been at least 100 major attacks on Christians and their churches since he came to power. Egyptian security will be sorely tested when Pope Francis visits the country later this month.

With nowhere else to turn, Egyptians — and Christians in particular — will continue to turn to el-Sisi for protection and support. Hence, in the short run, he stands to benefit politically from this tragedy. In the longer run, however, tolerance for his repressive tactics is likely to wane if Christians are not protected, ISIS is not contained and Egypt’s economy stalls.

So despite President Trump’s kind words, el-Sisi should not take his newly restored American ties or Mr. Trump’s support for granted. Skeptics note that Egypt got no new financial aid as a result of the trip. Nor did Mr. Trump renew the financing mechanism which would allow Cairo to buy weapons systems on credit.

Finally, Mr. Trump has not designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, as Egyptians had hoped. Finally, although President Sisi has defended President Bashar al-Assad in his fight against ISIS, Egyptians were not pleased by President Trump’s about-face on the Syrian leader and America’s bombing of a Syrian air base after Syria used chemical weapons.

So while Egypt may once again be welcomed in Washington and warmer relations restored – a long-standing Egyptian goal -- Sisi must tread carefully. This short–term benefit may not translate into longer-term gain if he fails to show results at home, or policy disagreements between Washington and Cairo continue to grow.