WASHINGTON — President Trump's meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at the White House Monday may represent the strongest signal yet that Trump is making counter-terrorism a top priority — even if it comes at the expense of human rights in the region.
White House aides said Trump hopes to use Monday's meeting to "reboot" the relationship and reestablish a connection made when they first met in New York last September. It's a reversal from President Obama, who gave a cold shoulder to the Egyptian leader after he helped depose the democratically elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.
Since then, Sisi's regime has been responsible for jailing and killing thousands of protesters. "He took control of Egypt. And he really took control of it,” Trump told the Fox Business Network last September.
One senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the White House press office, said Trump would address human rights issues, but would handle it in a more "discreet" way.
"Do we believe it, given that this administration has gone out of its way to avoid talking about human rights?" said Neil Hicks, an Egypt specialist at Human Rights First. "I think we're entitled to be skeptical."
The Trump administration has already taken a number of steps to de-emphasize human rights in its foreign policy. Last week, the administration approved the sale of 19 F-16 fighter jets to the Kingdom of Bahrain, despite human rights concerns that had held up the sale under the Obama administration.
And when the State Department released its annual human rights report last month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did not hold a press conference to detail the findings of the human report.
Thar report cited Egypt for a long list of human rights violations. Among them: excessive use of force by state security forces, including impunity for the killing and torture of political opponents; the use of military courts to try civilians in mass trials, and widespread practices that include female genital mutilation, human trafficking, forced marriage and child abuse.
In one closely watched case, Egyptian officials arrested Aya Hijazi, an Egyptian-American citizen who ran a charity for street children. White House officials would not make any assurances that Trump would bring up her two-year detention. "We are going to address this issue with Egypt in a way that he hope will maximize the chances of getting it resolved," said a second official, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
Trump has said his first foreign policy priority is to "defeat radical Islam." And in a speech outlining his strategy last year, he mentioned only two world leaders by name as natural allies in that effort.
"We will partner with King Abdullah of Jordan and the president of Egypt, President Sisi, and all others who recognize this ideology of death that must be extinguished," he said in a speech in Youngstown, Ohio last August. Abdullah also visits the White House this week for a separate meeting focused on the campaign against the Islamic State and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Trump aides say the president will assure both leaders that he would "continue to maintain a strong and sufficient level of support to Egypt and Jordan," despite a budget outline that slashes foreign humanitarian and development aid — aid that has helped Jordan deal with a torrent of refugees from Syria's Civil War.