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Sisi gets his Trump photo-op, but not much else

H.A. Hellyer, a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington and the Royal United Services Institute in London, is the author of The 'Other' Europeans: Muslims of Europe.

On Monday, U.S. President Donald Trump met with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in Washington. There was great fanfare about the trip from the White House and the Sisi administration – much being made about the "chemistry" between the two politicians. But the day after, what was actually achieved?

There was no news conference following the meeting at the White House. Press were present to film some remarks made by both individuals but, notably, no questions were answered – rather, the press were invited to leave once the statements were made. It wasn't as though no questions were asked – they were, but ignored. It was clear no one in the Trump or the Sisi camps wanted to upset the "chemistry" with awkward questions.

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On the contrary – the friendliness and cordiality shown by Mr. Trump to Mr. Sisi was incomparable to visits by much closer and long-standing U.S. allies, such as Germany. The remarks were unsurprisingly flattering from both sides – the two politicians have complimented each other in the past on several occasions – and a flurry of pictures were taken. In short, a glorified photo-opportunity – but little else. That opportunity was, in itself, something that Cairo wanted. A meeting with the White House, with all the frills of a state visit and the warmth of a Trump reception, reconfirms Cairo's normalization on the international stage.

Perhaps none of that was unsurprising – but also, none of it was particularly new. Cairo has been normalized on the international stage for several years, following a somewhat rocky situation in the latter half of 2013. That situation meant the partial – but temporary – suspension of some aid from Washington and a series of critical statements from the European Union and the White House on issues pertaining to fundamental rights and freedoms at the hands of the post-Morsi, military-backed establishment.

But that "rocky situation" ended relatively quickly. Egypt's membership in the African Union was suspended – but reinstated. U.S. aid was partly withheld – but reinstated. Indeed Egypt became, after little opposition in the UN General Assembly, a member of the United Nations Security Council. Mr. Sisi has also visited many if not most of the more powerful countries in the European Union. In that sense, Mr. Sisi's normalization by the White House was not the establishment of a new state of affairs – it was a reconfirmation of an existing state that the international community – rightly or wrongly – is already adhering to. That may sit very well with Mr. Trump, certainly – but his validation didn't make any difference, one way or the other.

There was one crucial difference with the pre-Sisi period that took place under former president Barack Obama, which troubles Cairo: the end of guaranteed cash-flow financing in 2015 for the acquisition of military hardware from U.S. manufacturers. If Mr. Trump were to reinstate cash-flow financing, that would certainly represent a fairly crucial change in policy. Cash-flow financing meant that Egypt could order military purchases in large supply, secure in the knowledge that future aid would cover the cost. But there is no suggestion that changing that situation is on the table. On the contrary, U.S. administration officials have hinted that existing levels of aid might not be sustainable. In that regard, it's not so much an Egypt issue, but an "America First" issue. The scuttlebutt in Washington for weeks has been that "America First" could mean that privileged relationships that some countries have in terms of aid could be affected. Egypt, as the second-largest recipient of foreign aid, is potentially vulnerable in that regard.

It is all the more ironic when one considers the alternative scenario of a Hillary Clinton victory in the U.S. presidential election in 2016. A Clinton administration would probably have continued and perhaps intensified somewhat the Obama level of criticisms of Cairo from the State Department and the White House, and Cairo's political establishment was hardly rooting for Ms. Clinton. Yet, despite the better "chemistry" with Mr. Trump, there is no indication that Ms. Clinton would have ever questioned existing levels of aid to Egypt. A Clinton-led White House meeting would probably have happened at some point, and likely with less warmth – but the policies would have been objectively more positive for Cairo.

For all the talk about a vaunted "reboot" of U.S.-Egypt relations, real change remains to be seen. Perhaps that will change over time – but as it stands right now, the main difference seems to be a lot of photos with a lot of smiling officials.

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