To protect U.S. interests and advance regional stability, the Trump administration should continue to prioritize its relationship with the Egyptian government.
If we don't, others will step into the vacuum.
Indeed, they are already trying to do so. Next week, perpetual-President Vladimir Putin of Russia will visit Egypt and hold talks with its military leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sissi. According to Russian news reports, defense, trade, and commercial ties will be high up on the agenda.
But what Putin really wants is to draw el-Sissi out of the U.S. orbit and into his Kremlin castle. Just as the Russian leader has secured a de facto power sharing agreement with Iran and the salute of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, he sees el-Sissi as an opportunity ripe for the taking.
Where he won Assad's favor by providing Russian military support to his regime, Putin will likely attempt to seduce el-Sissi with tools and influence. More specifically, the Russian leader will probably offer el-Sissi advanced Russian military capabilities and promise to be his voice with an emboldened Iran and the Sunni-reformist Saudi Arabia. As the Middle East reverberates under grand power struggles and demographic pressures, Putin wants to center himself as the ultimate power broker gets things done.
Moreover, where Putin used former President Barack Obama's weakness to draw Middle Eastern governments closer to his corner, President Trump's apparent deference to Putin gives foreign leaders a new reason to consider the former KGB officer to be the man to deal with.
To understand why Putin wants to secure an alliance with el-Sissi, you only need look at a map. Capping northeastern Africa, sitting astride Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and offering the Suez Canal gateway to the Indian Ocean, Egypt would give Putin a geo-strategic anchor to rival any other in the world. Combined with his Mediterranean access via Syria, Putin would have the foundation to more effectively obstruct America and influence others to bend at his bidding. Egypt also happens to be the largest nation in terms of population in the Arab world, by a long way.
As I explained last month, this is why the U.S. must prioritize our relationship with regional leaders like el-Sissi and Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. Whatever their flaws, if these leaders offer alliances and cooperation on U.S. foreign policy priorities like counterterrorism, they are friends worth having. And we should remember that if put into action, American economic investments and realist security guarantees make us the most desirable partner.
Yes, it's true that el-Sissi's human rights record is deeply concerning (the recent terrorist attack against Sufi Muslims is likely to make el-Sissi even more aggressive). Still, American interests demand that we influence el-Sissi from inside our alliance rather than externally. As Obama learned (or didn't learn), criticizing authoritarian governments does nothing to alter their behavior and much to drive them into the open arms of our adversaries.