Throughout a whirlwind 18-month campaign, US voters have been treated to everything from a JFK assassination conspiracy to unusual theories about pyramids. As we approach November 8, the US is set to decide between Hillary Clinton, former first lady and secretary of state, and Donald Trump, real estate magnate, businessman, and former host of TV show “The Apprentice.”
While the world watches, Egyptians also wait wondering how a Clinton presidency might differ from a Trump — or if at all. What will each candidate bring to the negotiating tables in Egypt and the region?
by Bahaa Ghaffar
Donald Trump: Making America (and Egypt) Great Again?
Considering Egypt’s historical importance to the US, and the current state of US-Egyptian relations, it comes as no surprise that both Clinton and Trump were eager to sit with President Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi during his recent visit to New York for the United Nations General Assembly. In fact, Trump’s meeting with Sisi was his first and only meeting with an Arab or Muslim world leader so far, and proved to be surprisingly fruitful.
Following that meeting, there was a lot of talk of mutual admiration. Trump praised Sisi, calling him a “fantastic guy,” while Sisi said there was “no doubt” Trump would make a good leader and a “good friend” for Egypt. It may seem surprising that Trump, who has been so vocal against Muslims, would find a friend and ally in Sisi. It appears they found common ground in their belief in fighting terrorism “not only politically and militarily, but also addressing the ideology,” the Trump campaign said in a readout of the meeting.
This friendliness would indicate the US would continue military aid to Egypt in support of counter-terrorism initiatives if Trump becomes president, maintaining Egypt’s strong relationship with the Pentagon. Trump sees Egypt as essential to the fight against terrorism in the region, and a hub of stability amidst a region rife with turmoil. Sisi, in turn, sees Trump as “representing a new political trend which stands against Obama’s tolerance for political Islam and estrangement with Egypt under his rule,” as MP Solaf Darwish told reporters in New York. Trump had also told Sisi that Egypt and the US should be strategic partners again, with the US doing everything possible to help Egypt in its war against terrorism.
Whereas Trump and Sisi’s friendship might be surprising, what is perhaps more striking is Trump’s popularity among Egyptians. Speaking to Breibart News, Ahmed Gad, a member of the Egyptian Parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee, said “90 percent of Egyptians would prefer Trump because he will not cooperate with terrorists. He will not cooperate with the Muslim Brotherhood, and our main concern in Egypt right now is terrorist attacks … We see it daily in Egypt at the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood, so we know very well that they are a terrorist group and we want to build up our democratic regime.”
But perhaps Egyptians have come to favour Trump under false premises. The overwhelming support for Trump comes from fear, Ambassador Magda Shahin, director of the Center for American Studies and Research at AUC, writes in Al-Ahram Weekly. “Fear of a continuation of the era of President Barack Obama, who by all measures was quite a disappointment to many Egyptians of different classes and backgrounds,” Shahin writes, stressing that Obama was a disappointment not only because of his empty promises, but because of his apathy and reluctance toward fighting against the Islamic State (IS). Trump, in contrast, “has promised the uprooting of IS and its total annihilation. Whether he will stick to this promise and how he will do it is seemingly secondary for the majority of Egyptians, who like the tone of Trump more than they believe in his probable actions.”
But others fear what a Trump presidency would mean for Egypt, particularly when it comes to human rights. Speaking to Egypt Today, Ahmed El-Hawary, of the Social Democratic Party, warns that “human rights issues across the US, across the Middle East, across the world, are not going to be in good shape under Trump. He represents a regression toward a lot of the negativity the world has overcome over the past 40 or 50 years … Trump puts it in your face that not only are human rights issues going to be in the background, they are actually going to be reversed. There will be an anti-human rights climate, and an anti-freedoms climate. If that happens in the United States, it’s very obvious what is going to happen here.”
Despite these worries, Shahin says Trump is very much accepted by Egyptians. “People really accept Trump because they feel he is serious and really keen on doing something against the Islamic extremists,” he says. Perhaps Egyptians are also weary of Clinton, who they believe was a part of Obama’s “conspiracy to create Islamic extremism in the region.”
What resonates with Egyptians is that Trump views Sisi as a strong character that he believes in.
Hillary Clinton: America and Egypt Stronger Together?
If Clinton is perceived by Egyptians as part of the problem, her meeting with Sisi in New York didn’t do much to change the impression in Egypt that the Democrats have done nothing but meddle in Egypt’s domestic affairs. In comparison to his glowing appraisal of Trump, Sisi was tepid in complimenting Clinton, offering backhanded approval by saying, “Political parties in the United States would not allow candidates to reach that level unless they are qualified to lead a country the size of the United States of America.”
It didn’t help that while Trump’s meeting with Sisi focused on terrorism, Clinton discussed human rights, civil society and the release of detainee Aya Hegazi. Voicing his disapproval, Tarek El-Khouli, a leading member of parliament’s foreign relations committee, told reporters “these are the issues which represent an extension of the Obama mentality and which President Sisi believes should not be of a top priority … We believe that in light of the growing threats of terrorism, Clinton might choose to scrap her predecessor’s tolerance of political Islam and correct many of his disastrous policies in the Middle East.”
Clinton “addressed the need for a more vibrant, and free, civil society with Egypt” when she met with Sisi, according to Al-Ahram. Salah Hassaballah, chairman of the Freedom Party, told reporters in New York that “While Trump focused on a new agenda — that is defeating political Islam — Clinton showed that she does not want to change Obama’s radical liberal agenda which caused all the chaos we saw in the Arab world over the last five years under slogans of democracy, civil society and human rights.”
Whereas Sisi’s delegation perceives Clinton as an extension of Obama’s policies, Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, believes the opposite to be true. “After stepping down from the helm of the State Department in early 2013, she made a concerted effort to distance herself from Obama’s Middle East policies, which — despite including the bombing of no less than seven countries in the greater region — she argues have not been aggressive enough,” he writes in the Cairo Review of Global Affairs.
Clinton’s insistence on discussing human rights issues seemed to draw Sisi’s ire, but there are deeper-rooted issues as well. Many Egyptians, Egyptian politicians and Egyptian MPs believe Clinton helped the Muslim Brotherhood attain power after the January 25 uprising. “They were supported by the Americans and the Western world. Why? I don’t know. They did not come by democracy, they were not the people who came out on the 25th of January,” Amr Fathy, CEO of the Egyptian Chamber of Media Industry, told Breitbart News.
“Her tolerance toward such kinds of groups also led to the killing of America’s former ambassador in Libya, but she and the radical liberal community in America still do not want to learn the lessons of this disastrous policy,” Emad Gad, a member of parliament affiliated with the Free Egyptians Party, told Al-Ahram.
Not everyone agrees that Clinton is pro-Muslim Brotherhood. Speaking to Egypt Today, former Egyptian ambassador to Washington DC Mohamed Tawfik says, “I have not seen any evidence to indicate that Secretary Clinton is pro-Muslim Brotherhood. In her book Hard Choices she implies the opposite. Irrespective of the American position on the Brotherhood’s accession to power in 2012, we should not allow this issue to become a major factor in our relations.”
Shahin agrees, saying Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden were “of the view not to accelerate abandoning Mubarak after the January 2011 Revolution, and to keep him in charge in any transitional period.” Her camp stood against Obama to avoid the Muslim Brotherhood taking over, Shahin said.
Despite her reputation as a liberal, Clinton favors interventionism. “If Clinton wins the American presidency in 2016, she will be confronted with the same momentous regional issues she handled without distinction as Obama’s first secretary of state,” Zunes writes. “If you look at the positions she has taken on a number of the key Middle East policy issues, they suggest that her presidency would shift America to a still more militaristic and interventionist policy that further marginalizes concerns for human rights or international law.”
There are others who take a more pragmatic view of Clinton’s interventionism. “Clinton is an establishment candidate who will calculate very carefully what serves her interests, and what serves the interests of the party, in determining what her policy decisions should be,” former minister of foreign affairs Nabil Fahmy tells Egypt Today. “Therefore, on occasion they may be contradictory to each other. I don’t think she’s going to be an irresponsible interventionist or an aggressive interventionist, but I think she will always make up her mind based on the calculations of the political dividends of each step.”
What Should Egypt Expect?
As Egypt anticipates the upcoming elections, there may be the temptation to read too much into Sisi’s meetings with Clinton and Trump. Sisi meeting with both candidates is the correct thing to do, Fahmy says, and it is important to start understanding the approach of the upcoming American president whoever they may be. It wouldn’t have been appropriate to meet one and not the other, Fahmy explains, adding that the upcoming relationship is going to be about much more than simply personal chemistry. “I’m not somebody that is willing to jump to conclusions on the first report that there was chemistry.”
The shape of the upcoming relationship will be based most importantly on “how quickly Egypt continues to regain its regional effectiveness as a player in the Middle East,” Fahmy says. The more Egypt is a player in trying to resolve conflicts in the region, the more the US will engage with Egypt.
The relationship will also be based on the stand the US president takes on the Middle East, and whether they want to engage and intervene in the region. “If it is a president who believes the Middle East is not of interest,” Fahmy says, “then needless to say their interest in Middle Eastern countries will be diminished and will only be as far as it affects direct American interests.”