President Trump will welcome Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to the White House on Monday, and in contrast to some awkward recent visits from European heads of state, it should be a very friendly affair.
The White House has put out a statement ahead of the visit praising the Egyptian leader, who came to power in a military coup in 2013 and carried out a brutal purge of his Muslim Brotherhood opponents, for taking “bold steps since becoming president in 2014, including calling for the reform and moderation of Islamic discourse and initiating courageous and historic economic reforms.” Trump and Sisi have been speaking admiringly of each other for some time now. In September, after the two met in New York and Sisi said that Trump would “no doubt” make a strong leader, Trump called him a “fantastic guy” with whom he’d had “good chemistry.”
Unlikely as it may seem given the Islamophobic rhetoric that animated Trump’s campaign for president and the controversial travel ban he has been attempting to institute, Middle Eastern governments have been among Trump’s biggest fans so far. Sisi’s visit follows one from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman last month, who called Trump a “true friend of Muslims.” He had a “good conversation” with the King of Jordan in February, which may have been partly responsible for the Trump administration putting off its long-promised controversial move of the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and is hosting him again next Wednesday. There has been almost no public condemnation of the travel ban from major Arab powers, and the government of the United Arab Emirates has even defended the policy.
So why the love fest? Trump clearly has a fondness for autocratic strongmen, having lavished praise most famously on Vladimir Putin but also Sisi and even Saddam Hussein. Trump has also indicated that human rights issues will not be a major priority in his foreign policy, most recently by lifting Obama-era restriction on arms sales to Bahrain.
There are strategic reasons for the mutual affection as well. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are relieved, after the diplomatic overtures of the Obama years, to see the Trump administration’s strong anti-Iran stance and support for the controversial air campaign in Yemen. And Sisi is happy to see that the Trump administration shares its hostility toward the Muslim Brotherhood. (Some governments in the region saw Obama as having betrayed longtime Egyptian ally Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring and being too supportive of democratically elected Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi.)
At one point, Syria might have been a potential sticking point between Trump and these Arab leaders. Gulf Arab states as well as Turkey have been major backers of the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad, while the Trump administration has been skeptical of the rebels and officially stated last week that it is open to Assad staying in power. But Trump’s stance on Syria is different than Obama’s in degree rather than kind. The Obama administration repeatedly resisted calls to fully back the rebels and it’s been obvious since at least 2014 that Washington wasn’t serious about overthrowing Assad. With the backbone of the Syrian rebellion effectively broken in Aleppo in December, Syria isn’t as salient an issue as it once was.
As for the travel ban, which is widely viewed in the U.S., including by the U.S. judicial system, as discriminatory against Muslims, the countries it affects—perhaps intentionally—are either failed states too weak to fight back, or in the case of Syria and Iran, not countries that Sunni Arab governments are too anxious to stand up for. Years before Trump’s proposed ban, Kuwait had placed a similar one on travelers from five unstable regional countries.
“Arab governments are kind of anti-Muslim in a number of different ways,” Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the recent book Islamic Exceptionalism, told me in an interview last week. “As long as Egypt or the UAE or other Arab governments feel like they’re not affected directly by the ban, they don’t care that much about Libya or Yemen. They think, at least we’re in the good category. There isn’t any kind of fellow feeling with other Muslim governments.”
Trump’s policies, particularly on the Muslim Brotherhood, also have a constituency in countries like Egypt. “My Egyptian relatives kind of love Trump,” Hamid told me. “He’s a strong leader. He fits into the mold that Sisi fits into: the charismatic strongman that brooks no dissent.”
Hamid says there hasn’t been much polling on Arab public opinion toward Trump yet, which would help determine “to what extent to people see Trump as just another bad American president or a uniquely bad one when it comes to how America views Muslims and whether America is at war with Islam.” In other words, the public may hate Trump in the Arab world, but their bar for U.S. presidents is already set pretty low.