By Roberta Rampton and Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump will seek to rebuild the U.S. relationship with Egypt at a Monday meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi focused on security issues and military aid, a senior White House official said on Friday.
“He wants to use President Sisi’s visit to reboot the bilateral relationship and build on the strong connection the two presidents established when they first met in New York last September,” the official said, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity.
Egypt has long been one of Washington’s closest allies in the Middle East, receiving $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid annually. The country is fighting an Islamist insurgency in Sinai, and hundreds of Egyptian soldiers and police have been killed fighting insurgents.
The bilateral relationship was strained when former President Barack Obama criticized Sisi for cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s oldest Islamist group.
Sisi does not make a distinction between the Brotherhood, which says it is peaceful, and Islamic State militants. Egypt considers the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group.
Obama froze aid to the country for two years after Sisi, then a general, overthrew President Mohamed Mursi in mid-2013 after mass protests against Mursi’s rule. Mursi, a Muslim Brotherhood member, had been elected the previous year.
Human rights groups have estimated that at least 40,000 political prisoners have been detained by Sisi’s government.
Trump’s relationship with Sisi got off to a good start when they met last September in New York while Trump was running for president, the White House said.
Trump supports Sisi’s approach to counterterrorism, which includes both military and political efforts, his efforts to reform Egypt’s economy, and Sisi’s calls for “reform and moderation of Islamic discourse,” the official said.
Asked whether the United States would designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group, as Egypt has, the official said Trump was interested in hearing Sisi’s views during the meeting.
“We, along with a number of countries, have some concerns about various activities that the Muslim Brotherhood has conducted in the region,” the official said.
‘MORE DISCREET WAY’
Sisi’s visit comes as the Trump administration has proposed massive cuts to U.S. foreign aid, the details of which are still to be determined. The White House anticipates aid to Egypt will continue but provided no details on Friday.
“We’re in the budget process right now and those discussions are ongoing as to how it will be broken out,” the official told reporters.
Some U.S. lawmakers have opposed loosening restrictions on aid to Egypt because of concerns about human rights in the country. The Trump administration intends to address human rights issues behind closed doors, the White House official said.
“Our approach is to handle these types of sensitive issues in a private, more discreet way. We believe it’s the most effective way to advance those issues to a favorable outcome,” the official said.
The official would not say whether Trump would discuss with Sisi the case of Aya Hijazi, an Egyptian-American who works with street children and was arrested in May 2014 on human trafficking charges. Rights groups have called for her release.
Hijazi has been held in custody for 33 months in violation of Egyptian law, which states that the maximum period for pretrial detention is 24 months.
A verdict was set to be read in a March 23 court session, but was postponed with no reason stated by the judge until April 16. The maximum possible jail sentence in her case is 25 years.
The White House is aware of Hijazi’s case “at the most senior levels,” the official told reporters.
“We are going to address this with Egypt in a way that we think maximizes the chances her case will be resolved in a satisfactory way,” the official said.
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein in Cairo; Editing by Will Dunham)