U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held talks with Egyptian leaders in Cairo on Thursday as he continued a nine-nation Mideast tour aimed at reassuring America’s Arab partners that the Trump administration is not walking away from the region and will maintain pressure on Iran.
Amid confusion and concern over plans to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, Pompeo met with Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry to discuss security and economic cooperation. He was later to deliver a speech on the administration’s broader Mideast objectives focused on combatting threats from Iran.
Pompeo said on Twitter that his meeting with el-Sissi had been “productive.” He added that “the U.S. stands firmly with Egypt in its commitments to protecting religious freedom and in the fight against terrorism that threatens all of our friends in the Middle East.”
At a brief news conference with Shoukry, Pompeo said “the United States will remain a steadfast partner in the region for Egypt and others” while also also urging the countries of the region to recognize and fight back against Iranian aggression. He termed Iran “greatest threat of all in the Middle East.”
President Donald Trump has boasted of his close relationship with el-Sissi, a former general who has been criticized for his human rights record and democratic shortcomings. The Trump administration has resumed weapons sales to Egypt that has been suspended over human rights concerns, including the jailing of several American citizens on what U.S. officials say are false charges.
Pompeo said he raised human rights with both el-Sissi and Shoukry and reminded them that “open and honest public debates are a hallmark of a thriving society.” He said he discussed a “panoply” of rights concerns, including the detention of political prisoners but gave no specifics.
Shortly before Pompeo arrived, the State Department noted improvements in the country’s human rights record. In a two-page fact sheet it said Washington welcomed the recent acquittal of employees of American civil society groups who had been “wrongly convicted of improperly operating in Egypt” and said the U.S. supports el-Sissi’s pledges “to amend Egyptian law to prevent future miscarriages of justice.”
On Wednesday, however, an Egyptian court sentenced a leading activist behind the country’s 2011 uprising to 15 years in prison after convicting him of taking part in clashes between protesters and security forces later that year.
The statement went on to laud Egypt for its “vital role” in regional security and stability and lauded el-Sissi for being “a steadfast partner in the anti-terror fight and a courageous voice in denouncing the radical Islamist ideology that fuels it.”
In his speech at the American University of Cairo entitled “A Force for Good: America’s Reinvigorated Role in the Middle East,” Pompeo was to extol the Trump administration’s actions in the region, including taking on the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria and imposing tough new sanctions on Iran.
“In just 24 months, the United States under President Trump has reasserted its traditional role as a force for good in this region, because we’ve learned from our mistakes,” he was to say, according to excerpts released by the State Department. “We have rediscovered our voice. We have rebuilt our relationships. We have rejected false overtures from enemies.”
Since withdrawing from the landmark 2015 nuclear deal with Iran last year, the administration has steadily ratcheted up pressure on Tehran and routinely accuses the nation of being the most destabilizing influence in the region. It has vowed to increase the pressure until Iran halts what U.S. officials describe as its “malign activities” throughout the Mideast and elsewhere, including support for rebels in Yemen, anti-Israel groups and Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“The nations of the Middle East will never enjoy security, achieve economic stability, or advance the dreams of its peoples if Iran’s revolutionary regime persists on its current course,” Pompeo was to say in his speech, according to the excerpts.
Pompeo also rejected suggestions that Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria signaled a U.S. retreat from the fight against the Islamic State group and maintained that differences with Turkey over the status of U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces that the Turks deem as terrorists could be overcome. He said the “crushing campaign” against IS would continue even without American forces in Syria and said consultations with Turkey over the Kurds were continuing. He did not elaborate.
Pompeo arrived in Egypt after stops in Jordan and Iraq where he sought to assure leaders about the Syria withdrawal. From Egypt, Pompeo will travel to the Gulf Arab states of Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait to press the case.