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Egypt's President Visits White House As He Seeks Term-Limit Exception


When, if ever, is it worth it for the United States to embrace an authoritarian leader? We're asking because President Trump is welcoming Egypt's leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, at the White House today. And this comes ahead of a crucial referendum that could change Egypt's constitution and allow Sisi to stay in office until the year 2034. Michele Dunne is with us. She served in the State Department for nearly two decades. She now runs the Mideast program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Welcome to the program.

MICHELE DUNNE: Thank you, David.

GREENE: So many consider Egypt's leader, I mean, even more authoritarian than his predecessors in Egypt. What is the argument for embracing him in moments like this?

DUNNE: First of all, Egypt is an important country. It's 100 million people in a very strategic location. And U.S. administrations often focus, in their Middle East policies, on Israel and on Iran. And that's certainly the case with the Trump administration. And they see the Arab countries, like Egypt, mostly as kind of instruments to be used in pursuing larger goals. So Egypt has always been particularly important regarding Israel. Obviously, it's had a peace treaty with Israel now for 40 years. And it's seen as an important player there, so it really can't be ignored.

That still doesn't justify inviting Sissi at a time when Sissi will really use this to show Egyptians he's got the full support of the United States to stay in power indefinitely, to take away the independence of the judiciary and give the military an even bigger role in the politics of the country. All of this will be now written into the constitution.

GREENE: So I know we're obviously only going to see part of this visit - like, the public part of it. Do you know if the Trump administration - even as, you know, we'll see the photo-ops and so forth - are they putting pressure on Sissi to reform, to do more for human rights behind the scenes?

DUNNE: I don't think this administration pursues this in any kind of a systematic way. I believe they do raise individual cases. For example, there are some - more than a dozen Americans held as political prisoners in Egypt right now. I think they pursue those cases. And they seem to have pursued, a bit, the draconian law on non-governmental organizations that Sissi put into place a couple of years ago. In fact, there was an announcement just before Sissi's arrival that they're going to abrogate that law and replace it.

Of course, that's just a promise. We don't know what will happen. But it seemed like they felt they had to say that before Sissi arrived. So there are a couple of specific things that the Trump administration will pursue on that file. I also think, David, that the Trump administration overestimates how much Sissi is going to be able to do for them on things like the Arab-Israeli peace process.

GREENE: Well, can you help me understand Sissi a bit better? I mean, you hear about complaints from human rights groups about his record all the time. But the Trump administration also has sort of portrayed him as a friend of women's rights, as an advocate for religious minorities, like Christians in his country. Are some of those characterizations fair?

DUNNE: Sissi does a really good job of talking the talk on issues like that. He says things. He makes public gestures like visiting a Christian cathedral on Christmas and things like that. So he does things like that in the public domain. But then when you look at his record - I mean, he's been in power for more than five years now. In terms of any changes in law, in government policies or practices, there's still a great deal of discrimination against Christians. Women's rights really haven't improved much. So he really hasn't done that much on those issues.

GREENE: Michele Dunne runs the Mideast program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Thanks a lot.

DUNNE: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.