WASHINGTON — President Trump on Monday welcomed the leader of Egypt to the White House for the first time in eight years and vowed to work with him on counterterrorism operations, but it was unclear whether Washington will sustain its $1.3 billion annual military aid package to Cairo.
At a public press conference, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi lauded Trump for standing "very strong in the counterterrorism field" and that Egypt would be a staunch ally against "this evil ideology that is claiming innocent lives."
"Your excellency, very strongly and very openly you will find Egypt and myself always behind you in this, in bringing about an effective strategy in the counterterrorism," Sisi said at a joint press conference.
For Sisi, this was perhaps a nod to reports the Trump administration reportedly wants Cairo to improve its counterterrorism and counterinsurgency efforts in the Sinai, and to help form a security-focused alliance of Arab states.
Sisi's arrival at the White House marked a reversal of U.S. policy after President Barack Obama refused to invite him over human rights concerns. The bilateral relationship was also strained when Obama criticized Sisi for cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's oldest Islamist group.
On Monday, Trump told reporters, of Sisi, "We agree on so many things.
"I just want to let everybody know in case there was any doubt that we are very much behind President al-Sisi," Trump said. "He's done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation. We are very much behind Egypt and the people of Egypt. The United States has believe me, backing, and we have strong backing."
Yet the White House's 2018 budget plans may target military aid to Egypt in a larger move to slash funding for diplomacy and development. The White House's initial budget proposal has proposed replacing Washington's longstanding foreign military financing program with a loans program — except for the aid committed to Israel.
The White House expects to submit a fuller proposal in May. That would have to clear Congress, where bipartisan resistance has met the initial outline as well as the FMF proposal and deep cuts to the State Department, among other agencies.
"Because of our domestic politics, that will be a challenge because the weapons systems we essentially buy for Egypt are made in the United States, and that would lay off American workers. And while President Trump has vowed to cut foreign aid, he's also vowed to create jobs, and this would cut jobs," said Eric Trager, an Egypt expert with the Washington Institute.
Whether the administration's plans to replace foreign military financing with loans surfaced in talks between Trump and Sisi was unclear, as were Sisi's requests for military and economic aid. The United States has provided significant military and economic assistance to Egypt since the late 1970s.
Were the U.S. to convert its military aid to loans, Egypt would see this as a fundamental downgrade in relations and likely go elsewhere for its military hardware, Trager said. That risks U.S. ability to project power into the Mideast through over-flight rights and preferred access to the Suez Canal.
The relationship was shaken in 2015 when the Obama administration announced it was reformulating security assistance for Cairo toward counterterrorism, border security and Sinai security and maritime security — and maintaining existing platforms like fighter jets and tanks.
But, Trager said, Trump's "big hug" approach on Monday signals he will not pursue political change in Egypt, which strengthens the chances he can trim U.S. foreign aid and maintain the relationship.
"There is a strong U.S. interest in changing the foreign aid equation to focus more on counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency," Trager said, "but the only way to do that while protecting her border U.S.-Egypt relationship is bilaterally, and that's something I think the Trump administration understands very well."
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.