As significant as everything Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said when he addressed the U.N. General Assembly this week is what he did not do. That was to travel to Washington to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama, who could alternatively have found time, as he did last year, for a private meeting with Sisi in New York.
Obama did find time to meet privately with Russian President Vladimir Putin and talk about Sisi, because when that meeting was over it was announced that Egypt should participate in the international contact group on Syria, which meets later this month.
Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry would not agree with me. According to him, a trip to Washington was scheduled, but had to be called off because Sisi had to return to Egypt given the recent cabinet reshuffle. However, both Sisi and Obama were in New York, and both found time to meet with other heads of state.
For all America’s continuous harping on about Egypt’s human rights abuses, Sisi’s importance and accomplishments have been honored by the rest of the world.Abdallah Schleifer
Sisi was particularly active. He met with French President Francois Hollande, and thanked him for facilitating Egypt’s purchase of two aircraft carriers for helicopters. Sisi also met with Jordan’s King Abdullah, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abaidi, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, Senegalese President Macky Sall, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, and Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
Libya was reportedly the main topic of the meeting with Renzi, who was asked to support lifting the arms embargo against the Libyan army, which is fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
So Shoukry’s denial that there was anything significant about Obama and Sisi not meeting does not really hold up. How could a cabinet reshuffle take precedence over a meeting with the U.S. president? Who decided not to meet?
In his interviews, Sisi went out of his way not to be openly critical of U.S. policy toward Egypt, as he has been previously. Not only did he declare that relations with the United States were “strategic and stable,” but said Washington had never let Egypt down. Sisi sounded almost wistful or melancholic rather than upset when he told CNN: “The last two years were a real test of endurance and strength of the U.S.-Egyptian strategic relationship.”
In his U.N. General Assembly speech, Sisi talked about the problem of Palestine. He said the creation of a Palestinian state would eliminate one of the most dangerous pretexts for extremism and terrorism. “The recent events at Al-Aqsa [mosque] emphasize the need for a comprehensive solution,” he added. In an implicit reference to the peace plan endorsed by the Arab League, Sisi said he hoped other Arab states would be able to follow Egypt in making peace with Israel.
The most controversial part of Sisi’s speech dealt with Syria. He warned that the civil war must not end with the collapse of the Syrian army and state, as this would lead to the regime’s weapons falling into the hands of terrorists.
Both Obama and Sisi are opposed to ISIS, and both believe in a political solution in which President Bashar al-Assad could initially play a role in a transitional government. However, Sisi does not denounce Assad, while Obama stresses the Syrian president’s culpability.
If Washington has restored all its commitments to supply Egypt’s armed forces, and if Obama’s secretary of state was in Cairo to revive strategic talks, why would Obama not find time for Sisi? It is possible that Obama cannot get over the fact that, for all America’s continuous harping on about Egypt’s human rights abuses, Sisi’s importance and accomplishments have been honored by the rest of the world, except for Turkey and to a lesser degree Qatar.
Sisi threw into disarray Obama’s strategic plan, dating back to 2009, to cultivate the Muslim Brotherhood because it allegedly would play a vital and effective role against Al-Qaeda once in power. Although it violates foreign policy realism, heads of state can hold grudges.
Abdallah Schleifer is a veteran American journalist covering the Middle East and professor emeritus at the American University in Cairo where he founded and served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for TV and Digital Journalism. He is chief editor of the annual publication The Muslim 500; a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (USA) and at the Royal Aal al Bayt Academy for Islamic Thought (Jordan.) Schleifer has served as Al Arabiya Washington D.C. bureau chief; NBC News Cairo bureau chief; Middle East correspondent for Jeune Afrique; as special correspondent (stringer) , New York Times and managing editor of the Jerusalem Star/Palestine News in then Jordanian Arab Jerusalem.